I’m having an exciting day. Not because it’s valentine’s day. We don’t really ‘do’ valentine’s day in our house. The first (and last) valentine’s day meal DH and I went to was a disaster, now recounted with much hilarity. It was so awful, we decided never to bother again. Every 13th of February, he does a little panicky check “we’re still not doing valentine’s day, right?” and that’s about it. Just as well, really, because I’d forget. I have a terrible memory for dates.
So, if it’s not that, what’s so exciting? The LEGO movie, that’s what! I love Lego. Sadly, my children don’t. I’ve tried my best to get them into it so that I have an excuse to buy more Lego, but no. They are stubbornly ambivalent. However, my six year old loves playing with the camera on my smart phone. So we combined the two interests and made a Lego trailer for my 2014 book Doctor January. In fact, we made two. Here they are:
Someone at work showed me this ad today. I think it’s fantastic! The toys (Goldi blox) aren’t available in the UK at the moment, but I’m sure they’ll get across here soon. When they do, I intend to buy my daughter some of these. When she gets tired of them, I can play with them!
I’m not overly bothered about pink, but I do object to things been classified as ‘for girls’ or ‘for boys’. I played with dolls (Sindy – nice, Barbies – always the baddie and Jem – just awesome). I also played with He-Man toys, Lego and Meccano I used to LOVE Meccano. I don’t think there’s any right or wrong toys. Just so long as you don’t tell your kids they can’t play with one sort or another.
My friend’s son wanted a pram for his 3rd birthday. When told it was a ‘girl’s toy’, he said, “But Why? Daddy pushes one”. Quite right too.
I’m a big fan of Terry Pratchett, so imagine my annoyance when he said “I’ve always thought that my fans were all geeks and scientists, but when I went to my book signings, there were a lot of attractive young ladies there.”
It didn’t seem to have occurred to him that there might be an overlap between the two groups. This is the man who wrote Equal Rites. I wouldn’t call him particularly sexist. It was a comment that came out naturally. Which tells you something about how pervasive these views are.
So go on girls. Build stuff, knock stuff down. Take things apart. It’s fun. (Please tidy up when you’ve done though, or mummy gets very annoyed and goes all shouty).
Okay. I’m off to have a sneaky play with my daughter’s Hex bug nano set while she’s asleep. Shhh…
This isn’t my usual sort of post. It’s not about a writing, but about indulging my geek-side.
The theme for the day was set when my daughter wanted to watch Commander Chris Hadfield singing Space Oddity (or ‘the major Tom song’) in the International Space Station. We then had a long discussion about girl astronauts and guitars spinning in space on the walk to before-school club.
Later, the day job took me to the Hull University science showcase (#Hullscishow), where I learned about new cancer biomarkers, the PET scanning facility (positron emission tomography – not a scanner for poodles!) , artificial ‘leaves’ for turning sunlight into energy, a tiny water powered car, dry water (seriously!), new OLEDS for display screens (LCDs were discovered in Hull, don’tchaknow) and a hundred other things that were being developed there. All this in the fabulous building that is Hull City Hall.
Quite apart from providing a place for the likes of me to play with technology I’ve only seen on paper before, the showcase was good entertainment. The morning had been dedicated to showing science to schoolchildren. They got to build DNA out of sweeties, compete to design more efficient wind turbines, see some enormous bacteria (I want one!), play in a racing car, wear 3-D goggles and stand inside a virtual skull and, my favourite, inject ‘radioactive tracer’ into Barbie. And then, in case there wasn’t enough excitement, @volcanologist and @sci_ents simulated a volcano by exploding a bottle of water and liquid nitrogen in a barrel full of coloured plastic balls. It was LOUD.
Since the schoolkids had gone by the time I got there, I got to try all this stuff too. I thought the giant bacteria were adorable – a couple of those E.coli would make lovely cushions for my sofa.
This is science communication at its best. Especially impressive were the PhD students. The exhibits had been carefully designed to be interactive, yet informative. They did a great job of explaining fairly complex science projects (they were explaining PhD projects) in easily understood terms. They even managed to ground some of the more ‘blue skies’ research to actual applications.
They’d been trained in group work and presentation, so they were even able to discuss each other’s projects. Above all they were enjoying themselves. Their enthusiasm and passion did more for their subjects than any number of free sweets and pens could. These young people will go into the world of work able to communicate with clarity and sparkle – something that will serve them well regardless of what they go on to do.
When things got quieter, people wandered across and looked at each other’s stands. Synergies were discovered, interesting conversations of the ‘So if you applied that to my work we could see if…’ variety sprang up. This is how science works. Ideas formed in the pub (or exhibition hall) supported by results generated in the lab.
It was science communication at its best. Well done chaps. I’ll definitely be going again next year. Giant bacteria and things that go boom. How could you possibly resist?
I don’t have a title for my latest book yet, but I know it’s about a woman who is doing a science PhD and wondering whether or not to stay. It was inspired by a conversation I had with a friend about why women leave science.
Every year there are hundreds of women with PhDs who hang up their lab coats and go do something else. It could be something science related (science teachers, lab technicians, that sort of thing) or something totally unrelated – there a lot of accountants and actuaries and lawyers who have science degrees or PhDs.
There are a lot of reasons why women leave science. It’s hard to fit it in with raising a family for a start. A lot of places now have flexible working hours, part time working etc etc etc. But it doesn’t change the fact that you’re expected to do the equivalent of a full time job in the hours you have. If not (or even if you do manage it) you’ll be treated as someone for whom work is hobby. Besides all that, what happens to your experiment if you have to suddenly disappear to pick up a sick child? You’d have to repeat the whole thing when you get back, or ask someone to look after it for you. For women who care about their career, that sucks.
I left science well before I had children. What made me leave? I’ve thought about this a lot, and I’m not sure I know, even now. I could say it’s a man’s world. But my PhD supervisor was female and she was very very good.
One thing I noticed is the difference in the level of confidence between men and women. The guys would stand up with results that they weren’t 100% confident in and talk as though it was conclusive. They believed in themselves enough that when challenged, they would face the challenger down and confidently predict what was going to happen. Me, if someone challenged by work, my first reaction was to doubt myself. HAD I made a mistake in my calculations? HAD I misread something? I would always falter in my responses. Invariably, when I went back and checked, I was right all along. But by then, it’s too late. I’ve already shown weakness. Somehow that diminished my integrity as a scientist.
So much of what happens in scientific circles is down to ego. What my friend calls ‘Willie waggling’ (which would be, by definition, something men are better suited to…). What you’re saying seemed less important than who was saying it and how confidently they said it.. I’ve worked in industry and it happens there too, but not as often.
So, there you have it, my reason for leaving science was a lack of confidence in my abilities. And I think I’m fairly easily bored (useful for a writer, not so much for a scientist). If you left science after a PhD (be you male or female!), what was your reason for leaving?
Last night we sat down to watch Sherlock on iPlayer. This is what happens when a chemist and a former biochemist watch something set in a top secret MOD laboratory:
Biochemist: Why is Russel Tovey scared of dogs? He’s a werewolf.
Chemist: He’s someone else in this one. Duh.
Chemist: A top level visitor and they send a corporal? Seriously?
Biochemist: Does ‘Clean Room’ mean nothing to you?! Suit up, you moron. You’re ruining years of work…probably.
Chemist: Can they really make glow in the dark rabbits?
Biochemist: I’m pretty sure they’ve done it with mice.
Chemist: Oh. Okay.
Chemist: Why does he need a microscope to run chemical tests?
Biochemist: Sulfuric acid and sugar. You’d get black stuff.
Biochemist: And why is he writing on the table? Messy. Tsch.
Ages after the program finished:
Chemist: Pressure triggered aerosols sounds like a lot of work for a totally non-controlled experiment.
Besides, where does he manufacture the stuff? And where does he get the equipment from?
Biochemist: I don’t know. The supersecret MOD facility maybe?
Chemist: So why doesn’t he just do the experiments there? They said the ethics are flexible.
Biochemist: Do you know what time it is? Shuddup and go to sleep.
Don’t get me wrong. I really enjoyed the episode and thought it was a great way to modernise a story that essentially revolves around a scary, glowing dog that runs around on the moor. It was nice and up to date and still retained the scary, glowing dog. I liked the landmine at the end too.
I’m a bit worried I may have a problem with suspension of disbelief.
Me, I have a name that’s difficult to spell and difficult to pronounce (those who claim otherwise almost invariably pronounce it wrong). So, it made sense to use a pen name.
But what name?
Middle name + mother’s maiden name – yeah, okay. Plausible, but still difficult to spell.
My first pet + street I grew up in? Er, my brother named the dog ‘Knight Rider’…
I love a silly name. So here are my top four ways of finding names, silly or otherwise:
1.Motorway road signs – when driving along, look at the turn offs and see if you can pair up place names. Bradley Stoke, Brent Knowle, Filton Thornbury… It’s more entertaining than eye-spy. In fact, the lead singer of Triphoppers in Patently in Love was originally called Ashby Coalville (junction 22 off the M1) until my critique partner made me change it.
2. Common household names/trademarks – Sturmey Archer,Nat West, Pepsi Max, Cal Pol, Jeff Lemon … er… Cillit Bang. Jasper Fforde is the king of silly names like this. Commander Braxton Hicks? Genius.
3. Two words picked at random. You might have to move them around a bit until it sounds right. Ruby Wellington, Fortune Armoire, Hera Pungent. A dictionary is useful for this. The rude words are just a bonus.
4. Bacteria – Spiro Keats, Sal Monella, Steph Aureus, Sue Domonas, Liz Teria, Dick Tostelium (okay, not a bacterium, but too good to pass up).
So when I had to choose a pen name, the choice was fairly obvious. It needed to be short, easy to spell, somehow personal to me. So I named myself after my favourite pretty-coloured bacterium.
And, yes, I realise that I’m a very sad person just for HAVING a favourite bacterium.
I was talking to someone during the day job and it transpired that we were both escapees from science. We had both left molecular biology and gone on to do other things where the science knowledge is only tangentially relevant. After a few minutes comparing notes, she said, a little wistfully, “Do you ever miss the lab? I do.”
This got me thinking about the influence the science grounding has had on me. Most obvious is the level of detail I go into when my kids ask questions like ‘what’s spit made of?’. Tyke No 1 knows all about saliva and lysozyme, even if she can’t pronounce it.
The lab training comes out from time to time without my even noticing, usually in the kitchen. I still measure liquids from the bottom of the meniscus and flick the air bubbles out of the calpol syringe to get a full dose. Then there’s the fondness for anti bacterial sprays, the almost obsessive hand washing and the funny attitude to food that’s fallen on the floor.
What I really miss the equipment. Not the big stuff, like autoclaves and waterbaths – although they’re fun. It’s the little things. Again, I usually think of them when I’m in the kitchen.
Top 5 things from the lab that I wish I had at home.
1. Saran wrap – big, BIG, superwrap. None of this cling to itself, but slide off your sandwiches nonsense. If you wrap something in Saran wrap, it stays wrapped.
2. Parafilm – strong, stretchy sealing film. This is exactly what I need to stop my spices losing their smell and flavour. Also handy for sealing small tupperwares that I’ve lost the lids for/accidently deformed in the microwave. Or making mini drums for the kids.
3. Heated magnetic stirrer plates. Self heating, self-stirring soup. Ah the possibilities.
4. Liquid nitrogen – makes the creamiest ice cream. And it can turn a banana into a hammer. Can an ice cream maker do that? I don’t think so.
5. Dry ice – turns the washing up bowl into a mass of witchy smoking bubbles. What’s not to like?
Hmm… maybe I’ll set the next novel in a lab. (Update: I did. Doctor January is set in a microbiology lab.)