Monday, 30 August 2010

Hollywood Comes to the Lab?

I was just listening to an interesting program on Radio 4, Scientists Go to Hollywood (not available on Listen Again, sadly), about scientists who consult for Hollywood films, and it gave me an idea.

Why is it always a one-way street?

Why not the other way around?

Why not get a Hollywood director into the lab? How helpful might that be? I think it could be fantastic.
"Ok," says Hollywood Director (HD), "Who's the good guy here?"
"Umm," says PhD student, "Well, we think this protein plays a major role in wound healing."
"Great!" says HD. "So, so in Act 1 we see your protein doing his job, healing wounds, and then there's the Inciting Incident: he gets a bump on the head and he's knocked clean out."
"OK!" says the PhD student, getting excited. "So, he can't do his job. So no wounds get healed at all. And then there's the bad guy..."
"The villain, very important," says HD, who is looking around the lab and seeing dollar signs and record-breaking first weekend's takings.
"Who is wounding and wounding, and it looks like none if it will ever get healed..." shouts the PhD student, pounding a fist on the bench. "And there's only 24 hours to save the world!"
"Ok, pal, slow down," says HD. "Where's the love interest? There's gotta be attraction..."
 "Oh yes," says the PhD student. "There are the immune cells, they head for the wound..."
"Ok, ok, and one of them falls in love with our good guy..." says HD, gazing across the microscope and seeing golden statuettes.
"Um, well, I'm not sure..." says the PhD student.
"That's all we need so far, kid" says HD, putting an arm around the student's shoulders. "Now let's talk budget".  
You see where I'm going with this, right? I think this is a winning combination! Scientist is helped with plot development, Hollywood funds life-saving research in exchange for exclusivity on the story... everyone benefits! Writer-in-residence, move over, Hollywood-director-in-residence applications open soon.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Guest Blog Post: Nick Riddle Makes Friends With Science

I'm delighted to welcome Nick Riddle to the blog! Nick is a writer and editor in the University's Public Relations Office. Take it away, Nick:
As a child I had a fear of dogs. There was no very good reason - they just seemed intimidating. When, as an adult, I overcame this phobia, I started taking an extravagant pleasure in making the acquaintance of certain dogs. I’d make a fuss of them and let them lick my face, which occasioned a few concerned remarks from friends: ‘You know, you really don’t have to let him do that...’

It’s been a bit like that with science. I was your classic science-averse kid who resisted the advances of biology and chemistry, neither of which gained a purchase on my imagination. At home I was captivated by TV science - James Burke’s Connections, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos - but by then I’d dropped the science subjects and was grinding my way miserably through O-level Maths.

But years (and two arts degrees) later, as a writer working at Indiana University, I started interviewing academics about their work. One such subject was a particle physicist who tested laptops and other electronic devices for their resistance to radiation. Even now, when I read the resulting article, I can sense the relish of the younger me trying out his facility for language on a new subject. It was partly the challenge of tackling something new, but there was also a thrill involved in feeling at ease (relatively speaking) with something I used to think of as intimidating.
A neuroscientist could probably tell me which chemicals are sloshing about when this happens (dopamine? You see, I get a little kick just out of throwing the word in there), but I’m willing to bet that they’re the same chemicals at work when I’m saying hello to my friend’s beagle.

These days, as co-editor of Bristol’s Subtext magazine, I get to meet and interview a goodly number of the University’s scientists: astrophysicists, chemists, neuroscientists, biologists, mathematicians - the full range of academic breeds. I don’t imagine for one moment that I’ve understood more than a fraction of their work, and I’d like to do an awful lot better, but just getting to grips with a topic and finding words to describe it can still hit the spot.

So when I knock on the office door of the next scientist - audio recorder in hand, web printout of their research summary in pocket - chances are that I’m silently repeating my mantra: Go ahead, science - lick my face.
Thanks so much, Nick, a lovely image to end on! If you'd like to contribute a guest blog post, please email me at All contributions welcome!

Friday, 6 August 2010

Genomics Forum Poetry Competition 2010

I'm delighted to pass on details of a poetry competition seeking poetry inspired by genetics and genomics. Here it is:

The Genomics Policy and Research Forum is delighted to announce a brand new writing competition for budding poets in partnership with the Scottish Poetry Library.

‘improving the human’ - Humanity+poetry
The human genome has been unravelled and mapped. Genes responsible for different illnesses and conditions are being identified. Will this information improve the human and help us avoid disease and death? And does this desire to be perfect mask something more sinister – a lack of empathy for the imperfect?  Will this lead to a genetic divide between rich and poor? Do we even want to live for ever? Or, like the Sibyl, do we think that death gives life its meaning?
Thomas Hardy was inspired by germ plasm theory (the forerunner to genetics) to write ‘Heredity’;

… that is I;
The eternal thing in man,
That heeds no call to die.

Are you similarly inspired?

BriefWrite a poem of no more than 50 lines on the theme of ‘improving the human’.
  • The deadline for entries is 7 October 2010 (National Poetry Day)
  • The judges are Gwyneth Lewis (Wales’s National Poet 2005-06), Peggy Hughes at the Scottish Poetry Library, and Professor Steve Yearley, (director of the Genomics Forum)
  • Poems should not have been published or accepted for publication elsewhere
  • Entrants can be of any nationality. Entrants can only submit one poem.

Send your poems to
Please send your poem as an attachment to your email, and ensure that the attachment contains only the poem and poem title (if using a title) but no other identification. In the body of the email, please list your name, contact details and poem title (or first line of poem, if you do not wish to give it a title).

Winners will be contacted in November 2010 and a list of winning entries will be posted on the Genomics Forum website by the end of November.
A selection of the winning and shortlisted poems will be published in a special publication of the Forum in 2010.
The Scottish Poetry Library will host an evening of poetry readings based on the winning entries.
First prize is £500, second prize is £200, and third prize is £100.

Copyright remains with the author, but the Genomics Forum has the right to publish winning poems on its website and in a special publication.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

"Scientists screw up their courage and jump into the communication breach."

I've just read a  very interesting article by Andrew C Revkin, Senior Fellow for Environmental Understanding, Academy for Applied Environmental Studies, Pace University, New York, NY, who says:
Specialized journalists now occupy a shrinking wedge of a fast-growing pie of light-speed media. This reality threatens to erode the already limited public appreciation of science. But the situation also presents a great opportunity – and responsibility – for scientists, their institutions, and their funders. Institutions that thrive in this world of expanding, evolving communication paths are those willing to engage the public (including critics) and to experiment with different strategies. The alternative is to hunker down, wait for misinformation to spread, and then – after the fact – sift fact from hype.
He ends by saying that the status quo will persist unless "scientists screw up their courage and jump into the communication breach." How do you feel about this? Do you want to jump into the communication breach?? Read the full article or read the report on the article in the New York Times and the comments that ensued. One comment says that science bloggers are filling that gap. Are we/they?