Category Archives: Engagement

Last run for the Mind The Science Gap blog

After nearly two years and four hundred posts, the science communication course at the University of Michigan that feeds the Mind The Science Gap blog is coming to and end.  In between running a department, directing a research center, teaching, and actually doing research, something had to go.  And sadly, Mind The Science Gap was it.  The existing posts will remain, but there won’t be any new ones.  Sorry!  And thank you so much to everyone who has written for, promoted and commented on the blog – you have always been deeply appreciated. Continue reading Last run for the Mind The Science Gap blog

At the frontiers of the science of health risk – five areas to watch

Cross-posted from Risk Sense

This week’s Risk Bites video takes a roller-coaster ride through some of the hottest topics in risk science.

Admittedly this is a somewhat personal list, and rather constrained by being compressed into a two and a half minute video for a broad audience. But it does touch on some of the more exciting frontier areas in reducing health risk and improving well-being through research and its application.

Here are the five topics that ended up being highlighted:


Click to watch segment


Despite pockets of cynicism over the hype surrounding “big data”, the generation and innovative use of massive amounts of data are transforming how health risks are identified and addressed. With new approaches to data curation, correlation, manipulation and visualization, seemingly disconnected and impenetrable datasets are becoming increasingly valuable tools for shedding new insights into what might cause harm, and how to avoid or reduce it. This is a trend that has been growing for some years, but is now rapidly gaining momentum.

Just four examples of how “big data” is already pushing the boundaries of risk science include:

  • High throughput toxicity screening, where rapid, multiple toxicity assays are changing how the potential hazards of new and existing substances are evaluated;
  • “Omics”, where genomics, proteomics, metabolomics, exposomics and similar fields are shedding new light on the complex biology at the human-environment interface and how this impacts on health and well-being;
  • Risk prediction through the integrated analysis of related datasets; and
  • Designing new chemicals, materials and products to be as safe as possible, by using sophisticated risk data analysis to push risk management up the innovation pipeline.


Click to watch segment


Hot on the tails of mobile-health, the convergence of small inexpensive sensors, widespread use of smart phones and cloud computing, is poised to revolutionize how risk-relevant data is collected, processed and used to make decisions. Sensors already built into smart phones are already being used to collect basic information on environmental factors that could impact on health – and increasingly sophisticated add-on sensors are becoming more and more available. On their own, these data aren’t that valuable. But with cloud computing it is becoming possible to process and analyze risk-related data from thousands or millions of users – and then provide contributors with personal, near real-time information on potential risks and avoidance strategies. We’re not there yet – but C-Health is on the way!


Click to watch segment


The idea of responsible innovation has been around for some time. The idea is to reduce the potential for future adverse health and environmental impacts by integrating risk management and avoidance strategies into the technology innovation process. And with new technologies emerging at an increasing rate, the social and economic importance of responsible innovation has never been greater. In fields ranging from advanced manufacturing, sophisticated materials and synthetic biology, to 3D printing and remote charging, there is an increasing push to ensure that technological development is informed by the science of risk. And it isn’t only to ensure actual risks are avoided – societal and economic success through responsible innovation also depends on addressing perceived risks.


Click to watch segment


The psychology and sociology of how individuals and groups make risk-relevant decisions, and the subsequent consequences of these decisions, is a critical component of the science of risk. Just because it is social science rather than natural science does not diminish its importance. In fact, without a sophisticated understanding of how empirical data on hazard, exposure and risk translate into human understanding and action, risk assessment and the science behind it is pretty worthless. But why call this frontier “headology” – which is a made-up word from satirical author Terry Pratchett? Apart from being a little tongue in cheek, I wanted to get away from some of the baggage associated with terms like “risk communication” and “social science”. But whatever you call it, in today’s increasingly connected world, understanding the human element linking data and action on risk is becoming increasingly important.


Click to watch segment


This is a bit of a catch-all, but as the “simpler” challenges associated with health risks are resolved (and I use the word “simple” with caution) we are being faced with an ever-growing array of more complex challenges. These include:

  • Exploring and understanding the importance of non-linearity in dose-response relationships – especially at low doses;
  • Getting a better handle on the health-relevance of low level exposures to some substances – especially over long time periods;
  • Better understanding the science behind exposure to synthetic chemicals with hormone-like properties; and
  • Understanding that nature and significance of epigenetic interactions – both within a generation and across generations.

These and similar areas arise from complex interactions between our bodies and the environment we live in – and create for ourselves. The list could be a lot longer, but the bottom line is that some of the knottiest and most significant challenges in risk science involve understanding the positive and adverse impacts of interactions that are not yet well understood.

There are other areas that could have easily made this list – and in all cases these are areas that will continue to remain important well beyond 2013. So feel free to expand on the list in the comments below. And have a great 2013!


YouTube does the the Higgs Boson – Science communication on the quick!

Hot on the heels of yesterday’s announcement on the Higgs Boson, some of YouTube’s most viewed science communicators have been burning the midnight oil to explain why this is so exciting.  Wrapping up this series of posts on YouTube, I thought I would call out three prominent YouTubers who were at VidCon this last week, yet still found the time to pull together a video following the news.

First out of the blocks was Brady Haran with this video on the SixtySymbols channel, following the CERN seminar surrounding the announcement:

Next came Vi Hart’s “Sonnet on a Higgs-Like Particle”

And at 9:00 AM promptly this morning, Henry Reich of MinutePhysics posted his much-anticipated piece on the Higgs Boson:

What interests me especially with all three videos is how fast they were pulled together and posted, how effectively they connect with a broad audience, and how many views they have already had (not to mention the comments).  Vi Hart’s and Brady Haran’s are well over 30,000 views at the time of writing (around 24 hours after posting), while Henry Reich’s video had over 1600 likes and 450 comments within the first couple of hours of going up.  Compare this with the more mainstream (but still excellent) video from Cara Santa Maria at Huffington Post:

At the time of writing (2 days after being posted), it had 2,580 views and 19 comments.  Not shabby by any means.  But it’s clear who had the further reach here!

Update: Henry Reich pointed out that Cara gets most of her views on the Huffington Post video channel, not YouTube.  You can check out her HuffPo Higgs Boson video here [link]

And while I’m at it, here’s a late-breaking entry from Derek Muller (Veritasium on YouTube)

VidCon 2012: Community-grown science communicators smoking’ it!

I‘m over half way through the first day at VidCon 2012, and thought I would jot a few notes down on the science scene here.  OK, so maybe 7,000 people haven’t come to the Anaheim Convention Center to hear the latest on the Higgs boson and other interesting science stuff (although you’d be surprised by how many of them are interested), but after last year, I’ve become increasingly interested in how YouTube is developing as a platform for science communication, education and engagement.

After last year’s experience of a distinctly counter-culture nature, I wrote this:

Next year, VidCon will be held at the Anaheim Convention Center in LA, and I suspect will attract a much larger crowd than this year.  As planning gets underway for the event, it would be really good to see participation from some of the big names in science communication on YouTube, and a greater integration of science and technology YouTube communities into the program.

I doubt very much that Hank Green – the driving force behind VidCon – is a sufficiently avid reader of 2020 Science that he read this and acted on it.  But nevertheless science has clearly moved up the agenda this year.  This in part reflects a massive increase in science content and viewership on YouTube over the past year – including the launch of Hank’s own channel SciShow.  It also reflects the fact that grass roots and alternative science communicators on YouTube are – not to put too fine a point on it – smokin’ it when it comes to connecting with today’s youth.

In this morning’s opening main stage session, Henry Reich (MinutePhysics) gave a packed audience in the Anaheim Convention Center Arena a quick lesson in quantum mechanics and the paradox of Schrödindgers cat.  And it went down a storm! Think about that – when was the last time you saw a physicist commanding the rapt attention of around 7,000 people in a live show?  Over the past year, Henry has shot up to over 300,000 YouTube subscribers and regularly gets several hundred thousand views on his videos.  His secret?  I suspect it’s in part due to his skills as an educator and the simplicity of his delivery – this the classic “chalk and talk; and a damn good teacher” model transported to YouTube, and it works!

(Minutephysics is one of the few YouTube channels my son watches regularly btw)

This afternoon, Henry was joined by Derek Muller (veritasium) and Destin (Smarter Every Day) to talk about physics on YouTube in a breakout session.  Also in the room were Vi Hart (Mathemusician on YouTube, and currently with the Khan Academy) and Brady Haran (The Periodic Table of Videos and a ton of other science communication projects).  All have an enviable reach on YouTube and videos that get tens to hundreds of thousands of hits.

The room was packed to overflowing.  I’d guess that there were around 150 or so VidCon attendees there, which believe me is impressive in a breakout session when a gazillion other things are going on.  (I think last time I spoke at a major conference at the Anaheim Convention Center, you were lucky if you got 50 people to your breakout!)  And the audience were fully engaged, with the session teetering on the edge of a physics Q&A session the whole time.

Three things in particular struck me in this room predominantly filled with young people – many of them young women:

  1. There’s a hunger for science knowledge and insights amongst these folk;
  2. The world is changing, and this new breed of community-grown science communicators are leaving more conventional approaches to science communication in the dust!
  3. As a science community, if we want to engage and connect with people outside our field more effectively, we need to be actively partnering these YouTube science stars rather than waiting for them to come to us.

Tomorrow we have a breakout session on education with Henry Reich, Brady Haran, Hank Green (SciShow), John Green (CrashCourse) and Mike Rugnetta (PBS Idea Channel).  Another science-heavy lineup that again emphasizes the growing importance of YouTube and its grass-roots science communication/engagement community.

Hank may not have read my blog from last year on upping the science at VidCon, but he certainly got the message it seems!

Update:  In my haste to post, I forgot to mention BrainSTEM – an unconference of science YouTubers held in Ontario Canada a couple of days before VidCon.  The place to be if you want to experience the cutting edge of online scicoms entrepreneurship.  Here’s a flavor from veritasium:

VidCon and YouTube Science

Having been initiated into the alternative world of teen YouTube culture last year, I am once again being dragged along to VidCon – the Comic-Con of the online video community.  This year – the third year for VidCon – promises to be bigger than better than ever with around 6,000 signed up for a two day extravaganza next week at the Anaheim Convention Center.  And it looks like science communicators and video-makers are going to have a greater presence than in the past.  Given the size, median age and enthusiasm of the participants, this is rather exciting.

I’ll be there with my daughter and a fellow vlogger from their YouTube channel Fellowshipofthening (highly recommended btw), one of a gaggle of bemused parents.  But I’ll also be on the lookout once again for how the YouTube community is intersecting with science engagement and communication.

Particularly exciting this year is the increased presence of science types at the jamboree.  Derek Muller (creator of the video blog Veritasium) is a speaker at the event, and Brady Haran of the phenomenally popular Periodic Table of Videos will be there.  Also attending (hopefully) will be Joanne Manaster, who writes for the PsiVid blog at Scientific American as well as her own video-rich blog Joanne Loves Science.

Actually, a  bit of a plug here – as Joanne is self-financing the trip, she’s looking for donations to help make it happen.  If you care about kids and science, please throw a few dollars her way – here’s where you can do that.

Then of course there is the mastermind behind the whole VidCon shebang Hank Green, who launched the SciShow YouTube channel earlier this year.  It already has nearly 200,000 subscribers and close on ten million video views – not bad!

I’m sure there will be many other science communicators/videographers/groupies at VidCon – if you’re going to be there, drop me a line in the comments or on Twitter and we’ll see what we can do about getting folks together.

YouTube is becoming an increasingly powerful medium for engaging teens and others in science.  But the success stories are arising from the grass roots community rather than engineered from the top down. This is what makes the medium and the culture surrounding it so intriguing and exciting.  And thanks to my daughter, I’ll have another chance to explore this weird and wonderful world in a few days’ time.  I might even have the time to post the odd tweet while I’m tracking down YouTube celebs (I still need a cheat sheet to let me know who the celebs are!) and meeting up with fellow YouTube/SciComms geeks!

Update June 20 – I missed Henry Reich (minutephysics) from the list of science communicators participating in VidCon – not sure how that happened!  Who else have I missed?

Wonders and Worries – Retro nano at its best!

Here’s an introduction to the “wonders and worries of nanotechnology” that I think is rather brilliant:

It’s part of a series being produced by the Science Museum of Minnesota for the Nanoscale Informal Science Education network (NISE Net). The series is designed to stimulate discussions addressing the societal and ethical implication of nanotechnology – but in an accessible and non-threatening way.

Keep your eyes peeled for further episodes with Mindy and Denny – having read through some of the draft scripts, I think you will enjoy them!

Superstition and science – another A World Of Surprises video

Another product of the A World Of Surprises project with James King and a bunch of extremely talented public health and science students.  This is a video from Gracie Trinidad, and explores the frisson between superstition and science through medieval paintings – with a contemporary twist at the end [make sure you watch to the very end of the video for the final quote].

The Tale of Rhino Banana(TM)

A product of the A World Of Surprises project with James King and a bunch of extremely talented public health and science students.

The task was to explore the confluence between mundane and catastrophic risk, which the team does beautifully.  Love the technique, and the subtle touches (note the progressive effect of Rhino Bananas on their creator).  And the news/web mockups are priceless.  Brilliant!

[Make sure you watch to the quote at the end]

Many thanks to:

  • Chad Warhola
  • Janae Adams
  • Anirudha Rathnam
  • Sarah Kang
  • Alejandro Mendoza

(Needless to say, this is a bit of speculative fiction!)

Exploring speculated catastrophe and mundane reality

Credit: James King

Last semester, speculative designer James King worked with myself and a small group of science and public health students at the University of Michigan to explore how a fusion of science and creative art can lead to new insights and modes of communication.  The exercise was part of the A World of Surprises project – a project James is working on as the Witt Artist in residence at the UM School of Art and Design.

Part of the aim was to take these science-grounded students out of their comfort zone, expose them to some radical new ideas and perspectives, and see what happens.

The results were impressive!  Once the students realized that they weren’t bound by the rigid limitations of their science education, they became enthused over using creative techniques to tell science-grounded stories that connected with people on a far deeper level than just the facts would allow.

Today the group presented the fruits of their final assignment: to produce a piece of creative work that captures the tension – in narrative form – between imagined catastrophic risks and experienced mundane risks. As a group, we were interested in the tension between the catastrophic consequences often imagined to arise from human endeavors, and the mundane reality that often develops.

I’ll try to showcase all of the projects over the next few weeks.  They were all, in their own way, quite brilliant.  Coming up in future posts there will be:

  • The Tale of Rhino Banana (a brilliant story of a technological breakthrough that runs up against public resistance);
  • Salutary lessons from the struggle between evil and the divine in the middle ages;
  • A visual juxtaposition of comparative risks related to Fukushima; and
  • A new-future story of technological sophistication and mundane consequences.

(I’ll add the links as they are posted – The Tale of Rhino Banana will be up first)

James will be back in Ann Arbor for the culmination of the A World Of Surprises project in March – stay tuned on that.

Metaphorically speaking, it’s photo caption time

A question for you: How many science literacy/communication/engagement metaphors can you see in the photo below?

Answers on a metaphorical post card in the comments area below please – I’m really interested to see what you come up with!

The photo by the way is the header image for a student science blog that will be launching in January – I’ll be writing more about that in a couple of weeks.  The blog is called Mind the Science Gap, and is designed to improve the science communication skills of public health masters students.

A few Small Issues about Public Engagement on Nanotechnology

A guest blog by Craig Cormick.

Over the past decade there has been a significant growth in public engagement activities relating to nanotechnology and when you look across all the data being generated you can learn a lot about how the public view the risks and benefits of the technology. That’s probably not news for anybody who follows this blog. But what might be news is to look closely at who is driving these engagements. Is it the public? Generally no. Continue reading A few Small Issues about Public Engagement on Nanotechnology

Didn’t get a reply to your email? This might be why:

You sent me an email and didn’t hear back?  This might explain it:

OK so it’s not a serious decision chart.  But it’s beginning to look increasingly attractive!

I always have the best of intentions when it comes to keeping up with my email correspondence.  But increasingly I find myself struggling to keep up. The problem isn’t so much the volume, as the expectations.  I have a constant stream of email asking me for stuff – presentations, reviews, advice, comment.  Each request is important to the sender I’m sure.  But if you are asking me to do something that I’m not directly paid to do, doing what you ask means that I to sacrifice something else to respond.  And that inevitably ends up being my personal time, family time, meal time or sleep time.

That said, I don’t begrudge people asking me to do things for them, and I usually try and accommodate requests. But if you have sent me an email that seems to have disappeared into a black hole, the chances are that it has been swamped by hundreds of others like it, or I had to decide whether to spend time with my wife and kids or with your request.  And if it was really important, there’s never any harm in resending!

Note: In the “Is it from someone important?” box, I should point out that this includes family and friends!

Contagion, plausible reality and public health: In conversation with Larry Brilliant

Blockbuster movies aren’t usually noted for their scientific accuracy and education potential.  But since its release last week, Steven Soderburgh’s Contagion seems to be challenging the assumption that Hollywood can’t do science.

The other day I posted a piece about how director Steven Soderburgh and screenwriter Scott Z Burns’ attention to detail and plausibility left me with a sense of optimism after watching the movie, despite its disturbing theme.  This was due in large part to the involvement of three science experts – Ian Lipkin (Professor of Epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columblia University), Laurie Garrett (senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations) and Larry Brilliant (President of the Skoll Global Threats Fund).

Larry Brilliant is well known for his work on eradicating the smallpox virus.  He was also a past Executive Director of the philanthropic arm of Google, and is currently President of the Skoll Global Threats Fund. Yesterday afternoon, I had the chance to chat with him on the phone about the movie, his involvement, and his thoughts on its importance.

What was quickly apparent in our conversation is that the idea of using film as a medium to help people better understand the threats epidemics and pandemics present is one that Brilliant has long been interested in.  While Executive Director of, he supported production of the Oscar-nominated documentary The Final Inch – a film about the historic global effort to eradicate polio. Given the success of the documentary in bringing a global issue (and public health success story) to the attention of millions of people, Larry was interested in how the medium of film could be further used – in particular to alert people to the plausible threat presented by pandemics, and the measures that are necessary to curtail their global impact.

And in Steven Soderburgh and Scott Z Burns, he found the ideal partners.

Well before he became President of the Skoll Global Threats Fund, Brilliant was interested in exploring how humanity can prepare for low probability high impact events like pandemics.  As he explained, he is particularly concerned over how we go about developing expertise and resources to tackle such events, especially where short term and local thinking does little to prepare society for eventualities that demand a globally coordinated and informed response. Brilliant emphasized that devolving responsibility to local communities and private organizations just doesn’t work here – you need the resources and reach of national and international government organizations, together with long term investment in expertise and people, in order to respond rapidly and globally to a fast-moving viral infection.

But how do you get that message across – especially at a time when long term strategic measures against catastrophic risks are being ditched in favor of short term economic and political gains?

Movies, according to Brilliant, are part of the toolbox for raising awareness and helping people understand how some challenges are just too big to be privatized. Unfortunately, films that build on fantasy rather than plausibility have led to the medium being marginalized as a vehicle for science-based communication and education.  But in the case of Contagion, Larry felt that with the combination of a “brilliant” director and screenwriter, together with a cast of dedicated and engaged actors (on whom Larry lavishes praise and admiration – especially for Matt Damon and Kate Winslet), the scene was set for a movie which was was emotionally engaging yet grounded in plausible reality.

The scenario developed within the movie is clearly fictional – it hasn’t happened yet.  But as Larry noted, because of the science that went into the movie, what emerges is a series of events that are not beyond the realms of possibility – and in fact, given enough time, are highly probable. As fellow consultant Laurie Garrett wrote the other day on the CNN website,

‘Contagion’ is part reality, part fantasy, totally possible

When asked whether he was pleased with the results, Brilliant gave an unqualified and very enthusiastic affirmative.  As well as high praise for the cast and production team, he was pleased with the way that the response to the pandemic was portrayed in the movie.  As he pointed out, the White House and UN are notable by their absence.  Rather, the heroes – the people who identify, track and eventually tackle the pandemic – are government-employed public health professionals.  To him, this is a highly realistic portrayal of how a pandemic is likely to play out, and a stark warning against cutting investment in public health because of short term thinking and a potentially catastrophic lack of understanding.

At a time when public health agencies in the US are facing significant cuts, this was a key message for Brilliant. Contagion is plausible reality wrapped up in a strong narrative – to Brilliant and others, it’s not a case of if such a pandemic will occur, but when.  And what Burns and Soderburgh have done is provide us with glimpse of our best hope for surviving this eventuality – assuming we haven’t abandoned our trained and prepared public health professionals in the meantime because we didn’t have the intelligence and foresight to recognize their importance.

This is a key message that Brilliant hopes will come through loud and clear as people watch and talk about the movie.  And it’s one that he hopes will have sticking power – with the movie stimulating conversations and action for many years to come.

The public and peer review literature: Pearls before swine?

This morning I sat down with my 14 year old son and asked him what area of science caught his interest especially.  He answered “the future of space exploration”. We carried out a search on the Web of Science for “future + space + exploration”, and the fifth article returned was “Comparing future options for human space flight” by Sherwood Brent (Acta Astronautica 69 346-353, 2011).  We downloaded the article and he read it.  When asked, he said the paper was understandable and interesting – he was glad that he’d read it, and wanted to know where he could read more stuff like this.

There’s a myth that only people who have ready access to peer review papers have any real need or desire to read them, and it’s a pernicious myth.

George Monbiot stirred up the debate on access to scientific publications recently in his Guardian piece “Academic publishers make Murdoch look like a socialist“.  In response, Kent Anderson – a long-time publisher and editor of scientific journals – set up this straw scenario, using it to justify limited access to journal publications: Continue reading The public and peer review literature: Pearls before swine?

The Human Project needs your help!

Here’s an interesting idea – build a free iPad app that kicks off a global conversation about the future of the human species.

The Human Project is the brain child of Erika Ilves & Anna Stillwell.  At its core is a yet-to-be-built iPad app that captures the essence of humanity past and future – who we are, where we are going, and how we are going to get there.  As Erika and Anna explain:

There are so many challenges that confront the species as a whole. The ones that get a lot of press (like climate change, food & water shortages, poverty, war, overpopulation and economic crises). The ones that don’t (like comets and asteroids, extreme experiments in science, technological terror and error). The ones that we humans don’t even imagine we can solve (like mega volcanoes, mega earthquakes, nearby supernova explosions, a dying sun, an aging universe). And there are plenty of visions too (like a space-faring civilization, transhumanism, zero carbon world, general artificial intelligence, the end of poverty, universal human rights, designing life and matter, zero nuclear weapons, the end of aging).

Everything is so fragmented. Every expert claims their issue matters most. Everyone fighting for their share of attention. So few have the big picture. Nobody seems to have their eye on the species as a whole.

So why not capture the big picture in a compellingly sleek package, make it free, and watch it take off?

Sounds like a great idea.  But here’s the kicker – someone has to pay for the up-front development.  To cover this, a crowd-funding initiative has just been launched on Kickstarter – if $25,000 are raised by Sept 28, a matching $25k is put in the pot, and the project goes ahead.

If you are interested in finding out more, check out the video below or visit

Social Media messed-up teens reveal all

Is social media messing up today’s teens?  Adults, it seems, love to pontificate on the benefits and ills of emerging internet-based communication platforms  on young people. But how often do they bother to listen to the teenagers they claim to be concerned about?

Well, this is their chance.

Over this past week, the members of my daughter’s YouTube collaboration channel Fellowship of the Ning have recorded their thoughts on camera, and provided a candid and personal perspective of how social media is affecting their lives. Continue reading Social Media messed-up teens reveal all

Want to know about teens and social media from the horses mouth? Watch this space

If you are a teen who uses YouTube (or know of one – maybe even your own teenager), please think seriously about posting a response to this video:

(You can also watch it directly on YouTube here).

Over on the Risk Science Blog, I’ve just posted a piece about Baroness Susan Greenfield’s views on the internet and society.  Something that concerns her a lot is how the internet, gaming and social media might be affecting teenagers.  But hardly anyone it seems actually bothers to ask teens what they think.

The video above was posted by my daughter Jade on her YouTube collab channel.  She has been talking with her fellow collaborators for a while now on asking their followers for thoughts on social media and being a teenager.  I’m afraid my interest in Susan Greenfield’s ideas tipped the balance, and encouraged them to get a move on with posting the three questions in the video.

This seems like an important opportunity though for teens to talk about social media on their own terms, and in a way that will help “experts” who think they know what is going on from actually finding out what it’s like for teenagers in today’s hyper-connected world.

So please encourage anyone you know to watch and post a response.

And check back in a few weeks to see the result.


Would You Lick Jam Off An Old Man’s Foot? and other important science questions

Would You Lick Jam Off An Old Man’s Foot Or Drink Toilet Water For An Hour? Can you explain how gravitons can escape a black hole?  Or do you have a good answer to the question “why are people annoying?”

This is just a sampling of some of the more entertaining and challenging questions from the hit UK teen science-engagement competition “I’m A Scientist, Get Me Out Of Here”.

Now, the team behind I’m A Scientist… is asking for your help to find the best question from the competition so far.

The process is simple:

  1. Have a nosey around the website, and read some of the the questions teens have posed to participating scientists over the years.  If you are stuck for somewhere to start, try the questions from this June’s Brain Zone or Quantum Zone (there were 23 zones in the latest competition – don’t forget to look at some of the others!)
  2. Once you’ve found a question that tickles your fancy, simply tweet the link to it, with the hashtag #iasbestQ
  3. Or if you are Twitter-challenged, email the link to, with iasbestQ in the subject line.
  4. And finally, don’t forget to spread the word around – the more votes for the best question, the better!

The competition closes on September 5.  The five students with the top questions will receive a selection of science books, and a highly coveted I’m A Scientist mug – just like mine in the picture below!

For further details, please check out the I’m A Scientist website.

And don’t forget to vote!

A plug for Risk Science Unplugged. Next up – Gulf Oil

OK so this is a shameless plug for the University of Michigan Risk Science Center Unplugged series of discussions (if you’ll forgive the pun) – and specifically the live/webcast event we’re having on the health impacts of the Gulf Oil Spill on April 14.

But I actually think the series is good enough for a bit of a plug here – not that I’m bias!

Fist a confession though: I get really bored with hour-long PowerPoint presentations and talking head monologues (sometimes, even when I’m the speaker!).  More significantly, I think there are better ways of exploring contemporary issues than just watching a series of slides and listening to someone drone on.  So when we were thinking about a format for the Risk Science Center to start tackling knotty human health risk-related issues, we tried to come up with something a little different.  The thought process went something like this:

  • Lets ditch slides, because they’re tedious.
  • And while we’re at it, let’s avoid long expositions from dull speakers.
  • Rather, why don’t we get a bunch of experts from different perspectives to discuss issues candidly…
  • …in a way that’s engaging to a wide range of people…
  • …with the opportunity for the audience to throw their questions into the mix…
  • …and with a strong moderator to keep things on track and stop them getting boring.
  • And why not make things web-interactive – with on-line resources, questions and answers, video streaming, ever a Twitter hookup?

The result was the Risk Science Unplugged Presents series – interesting people talking about interesting stuff, without the hassles of PowerPoint.  And fully web-interactive, so that people can watch and participate, even if they are not in Ann Arbor.

I’m rather excited about the series – but then I guess I would be.  Our first one was on nanotechnology.  The next – coming up on April 14 (10 – 11 am Eastern Time) is on the human health impacts of the Gulf Oil spill – and we have a stellar lineup, including:

  • The deputy Director for Program from NIOSH,
  • a PI on the recently launched NIEHS GuLF STUDY,
  • an MD
  • and an environmental lawyer.

So please check out the series, and join us if you can on the 14th – either in person, or via the webcast.  And please spread the word around – come September we will be kicking off a new series of Unplugged events.

And just to make things as easy as possible for you, there are the key links: