The story of my life…

It’s so true it scares me. Cheers Jorge.

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The great divide…

[ratings]

IN geographic terms, the ‘great divide’ is used to define the point in the USA, roughly following the course of the Rocky Mountains, where on one side a drop of water will run down into the Pacific Ocean, and on the other, it will run down into the Atlantic.

There is however another great divide in the USA, which is between those that have a basic knowledge of the world around them, and those that don’t. The online newszine Science Daily described a recent poll commissioned by the California Academy of Sciences, in which a series of basic questions, designed to assess basic science literacy, were posed to 1,002 adults over a four day period last December. The poll has been ongoing (though in a less rigorous sense) online at the CAS website. The results were as follow:

  • Only 53% of adults know how long it takes for the Earth to revolve around the Sun [a year, 365 days]
  • Only 59% of adults know that the earliest humans and dinosaurs did not live at the same time. [Duh]
  • Only 47% of adults can roughly approximate the percent of the Earth’s surface that is covered with water. [where the answer of 65-75& was taken as approx. correct, though 15% gave the correct response of 70%]
  • Only 21% of adults answered all three questions correctly.[!]
  • Less than 1% of U.S. adults know what percent of the planet’s water is fresh [3%]

Hands up who thinks this is unacceptable?

No, it’s not. So why is the USA finding it has a problem with scientific literacy? Well, please just indulge me. Let’s think about Pakistan, where many (though not all) Madrassas (Islamic schools) are engaging in the indoctrination of a new generation of children into fundamentalist rhetoric; this comes at the cost of education that can raise people out of poverty and morbidity; education that gives them some control over their lives. However, for many, Madrassas are the only source of ‘education’. Yet if you speak to a young professional on the street of moderate urban centres such as Karachi, they are not going to present you with the fundamentalist hard-line; they are the lucky few, to have been born into a better area, perhaps to a richer family whom are well educated.

It is not such a great step to see such a partisanship developing in the USA, with the richer, well educated ‘elite’ being outnumbered by those who are disenfranchised from modern successes, scientific discoveries and societal benefits. Those left behind in progress increasingly turn inward toward timeless stalwarts such as the fundamentalist hard-line, which not only serves to widen the gulf to be crossed by communicators of science, but ultimately results in senators, congressmen and governors becoming willing to bow down to public anti-science opinion, i.e. votes, at a government level, thus jeopardising the future scientific and medical progress.

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Three cups of tea….

[ratings]

A Pakistani friend of mine recently lent me a book called ‘Three Cups of Tea’. At the time I had absolutely no idea how famous this book now is, it’s been on the New York Times best sellers list for 109 weeks. Reading it has been a formative experience.

It is the story of Greg Mortenson who, in 1993, after a failed attempt on K2, wandered accidentally into a small Baltistani village in the Karakoram mountains. The name of the village was Korphe (Kor-fay), and his experience here would change his and, by dint of this, tens of thousands of people’s lives in this impoverished region of the North-West frontier of Pakistan. The kindness of the Korphe villagers, their willingness to give Greg so much, when they themselves had so little, truly humbled him; thus prior to his departure, upon seeing how the children of the village were forced to write their lessons in the soil with sticks, he promised to build them a school.

The book describes how Greg returned to California, broke and living out of his car, to raise the $12,000 required to build the school. From humble beginnings, to patronage by the late multimillionaire scientist Dr Jean Hoerni and the formation of the Central Asia Institute (CAI), Greg has directed the building of 80 schools, women’s community centres and student hostels in North-West Pakistan and Afghanistan. This could only have been achieved with a very loyal team of local contacts that Greg has a natural faculty to draw towards him. The schools are built by the people of the villages with the full support of the village communities.

The emphasis of CAI schools is on the education of girls, an idea captured by the maxim, ‘If you educate a man, you educate an individual; but if you educate a woman, you educate a nation’ (Mahatma Gandhi). This lasting and indelible educational structure is at the core of improving healthcare and welfare of villagers, but furthermore, will reduce the number of illiterate and uneducated people who would otherwise provide cannon fodder for radicalism by fundamentalist clerics; a mother is less likely to give her blessing to her son’s jihad, a strong social requirement, if she is educated and literate.

The byline of the book is, ‘One man’s mission to promote peace…one school at a time’. It is a noble cause and one that I will happily support. I highly recommend that everyone read ‘Three cups of tea’. If you enjoy the book, also read some of the CAI publications (Journey of Hope), which provide updates and fantastic photography of the current and ongoing projects.

Attention to detail…

[ratings]

Some MOST people would describe me as being a little moderately anally retentive; I have a rather punishing attention to detail, particularly so with the way I approach experiments. Something that really annoys me is when fellow scientists display a degree of slapdashness that borders on being negligent.

Many of us are publicly funded, and one of my aims in life is to communicate science to the public. I love science, both as a system within which I do research, and as a philosophy. If I am to wax lyrical about the rationality and worth of science, and the scientific method, to the public, and use it as a basis in arguments against irrationality, pseudo-science quackery and superstition, then I damned well better practice what I preach. As such I employ the skills and techniques I have learnt in a manner that takes account of these values; I design experiments with good controls, I vary the experimental variable whilst controlling the others. I use evidence-based methodologies that have been tried and tested, thus use minimal materials to achieve my ends in the minimal possible time.

It is not always possible to do this, especially in my current area where there are no protocols for what I’m doing as it’s never been done before. None the less, I form testable hypotheses, design experiments to test them and based upon the result, either modify, scrap or move on.

In your average science lab, based upon the very large number of science labs I have been to, I would have to say that the idea of sitting down and developing a testable hypothesis that makes predictions about outcomes, then designing experiments to test these is probably not what many researchers are doing. What they are doing is ham-fisting their way through protocols given to them by more senior players, which they follow blindly, often without knowing what each step in the protocol is doing at a physical level.

Many of these protocols have been adapted, cut-down and streamlined, which is often another way of describing that short-cuts, often rather slapdash ones, have been introduced. Now there is nothing wrong with this, per se, as long as the protocol is in the hands of a capable person who knows why the protocol has been revised in this way. But, the fact is you cannot instruct a junior member of research staff with protocols that have been cut-down in this way; the full anally-retentive protocol should be provided, or sought, and the researcher allowed to refine it once they’ve identified for themselves the pros and cons of keeping each step.

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Short stories…

[ratings]

I AM in the process of preparing to move my files to my new Macbook, once it arrives, but stumbled upon some old prose I prepared for a creative writing class; I never attended more than one session in the end and thus have not found found a style of writing I like. I chose to write an excerpt of a potential fantasy novel, but couldn’t really get in the mood. I have every intention of writing a work of contemporary fantasy at some point in my life, but at the moment I’d rather focus on science writing. Anyway, because I was amused by the rather kitch style of it, and because I could barely remember writing it, I’ve decided to post it.


Creative writing class No. 2

A fresh mountain breeze caught the rich scent of wetted soil, carrying it high into the forest canopy where a child slept. The girl, a small, wiry, and feral slip of a thing had taken refuge under the eaves of the old Oak before the bruised sky delivered its promise of rain. She’d spent the day sitting on the sun-baked, hollow-sounding earth of the hillside below, ignoring the pleas of the over-dry, and now crushed, grass, despite the actions of relentless pin sharp blades poking through the rough material of her clothing. Other thoughts filled the girls mind; thoughts unbidden and unwanted. A rumble had stirred her to reality and she’d climbed up the knarled and forgotten tree to take shelter.

The breeze was warm, despite the lateness of the day; it was early summer and the ground was drying rapidly. Small motes floating on the air gently tickled at the girls face; she sneezed and abruptly fell from her rest atop the branches and hit the matted undergrowth beneath with a resounding thump. Startled birds and animals fled the intrusion, a clattering of hooves, panicked cries and flapping wings. The girl rolled onto her side, attempting to recover her wind whilst trying to remember where she was. She curled up into a sitting position, hugging her knees; the world had returned to her all too suddenly, bringing with it memories of events she’d been running from. Her peaceful haven had once again been taken from her. It was time to move on.

The sun had long since set by the time she’d escaped the mountain forest and descended into the open planes, but the night fell slowly in these lands, the light lingering whilst shadows grew longer and longer until they merged. From her earlier viewpoint she’d imagined that she would have enough time to reach home by nightfall, a trek across fields to a tree bounded river that lead from the mountains to the brackish water of the fens, her home; she was one of the few who could be out at night, capable of resisting the taunts of fell creatures that wrapped themselves in darkness. Still, she always preferred to be in a familiar surrounding come the dusk, in the barrow that her family had claimed several centuries earlier, days she remembered well, despite her youthful appearance.

The first cry of a Haldan Crow signalled that darkness was upon her, it had overtaken her as she walked, too buried in thoughts to notice. Haldan Crows were a minor pest, but insignificant to the girl; she had sufficient talent to ward herself against them. But they heralded greater, darker beings, beings who could challenge her, even someone of her race who were of these lands and as old as any creature roaming the old world. She hurried, and using some of her talent to fashion a shroud from the mist rising above the cooling river, vanished into the night.

Watching from a distance, from beneath the knarled Oak where the small girl had taken rest, a woman stood. She’d watched the child fall from the tree and had been bemused at the sight; a Knowling girl being caught off guard, vulnerable and clumsy; she never thought to see such a thing.

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Doodles…

I don’t think of it so much as doodling, more as three hours of work.

Yup, obviously it’s a bit of old school genetic mapping of transpositional insertion sequences. Sometimes it’s nice to ditch the comp and do it by hand.