Category Archives: Recommended

Jumping the gap between a US and UK high school education

Tomorrow, my 16 year old daughter is leaving her home in the US for the UK. She’ll be there for the next two years while she studies for her A levels.  It was a heart-rending decision for my wife and I to agree to her living apart from us in a different country.  But the stark reality is that my daughter’s high school education here is just not good enough to prepare her for a British University – and in two years’ time, that’s where she wants to be. Continue reading Jumping the gap between a US and UK high school education

VidCon 2012: Online learning is where online music was five years ago

YouTube is gearing up to transform the way we learn.  At least that’s the message that came across loud and clear at this morning’s VidCon breakout panel on education. In an overflowing room of well over two hundred conference goers, head of YouTube Education Angela Lin led a panel of five leading video makers in a lively discussion, that gave a compelling glimpse of the future of online education.  And it was a future that didn’t feature too many conventional lessons or institutionalized videos!

As the panel included John and Hank Green (SciShow, CrashCourse and a gazillion other things) I was expecting a room packed to the brim with their incredibly engaged teen fans – which it was.  An odd audience you might think for a panel on education.  But this was a serious, intelligent and engaged crowd, eager to listen to the panel, ask questions and provide their own insight on online learning.  Joining the Green brothers were physics blogger Henry Reich (minutephysics), science YouTuber Brady Haran (The Periodic Table of Videos), Mike Rugnetta, host of the PBS Idea Channel and Vi Hart of Mathemusician and the Khan Academy.

What was notable was that these panelists are all a) successful online educators (extremely so in some cases), b) not formally trained in teaching (to my knowledge) and c) not representing mainstream educational institutions (not counting PBS).  This is important, because there was no doubt here that the excitement and impact surrounding online education is occurring outside conventional educational circles – and in many cases leaving them standing.  John Green talked about this emerging online education community as being “disruptive,” while brother Hank talked about a “new kind of learning.” And everyone the panel agreed that education content on YouTube is where online music was five or six years ago, and on the cusp of something really big.  But a big that might not necessarily include conventional educational institutions unless they get their act together!

On this point Henry Reich made the distinction between learning and teaching.  Formal educators (as well as “informal educators” in museums and on educational TV programs) teach to a curriculum or a plan, with competencies, learning objectives and evaluation being the name of the game. But at the cutting edge of community online education, content developers are using their passion and interests to facilitate user-driven learning.  And as John Green pointed out – endorsed by the packed room – people want to learn!

Bridging this gap between learning and teaching is perhaps going to be one of the biggest challenges – and opportunities – of online education over the next few years.  Without question, there is a global hunger for learning, and some very talented individuals who are beginning to satisfy this hunger using an increasing array of online tools.  This will undoubtedly help people develop and grow as individuals – but how do you also give them the tools to “do stuff” as opposed to simply enriching their understanding and satisfying their curiosity?

As new tools come online, educational institutions are jumping on the band-wagon to provide instructional content.  Initiatives like Coursera and edX are bringing college course material to a far wide audience using online video.  But even these innovations are in danger of looking turgid and outmoded in comparison to the new breed of community educators.

There are some moves to close this gap.  Brady’s Periodic Table videos for instance are used by teachers to kick-start classes and inspire kids.  And the Khan Academy is leading the field in terms of combining user-driven learning with practical teaching.  But if teaching institutions want to keep up with the revolution in online learning, it seems pretty clear that they are going to have to radically rethink their ideas of web-based content.  They are going to have to start partnering with and learning from the masters of online community education.  And they are going to have to let go a bit and embrace the mess and madness of online educational content as they respond to a growing community’s desire to learn.

What seems clear after this panel is that we are at the beginning of an exciting revolution in online educational content.  What is not clear is whether the teaching institutions can get their act together fast enough not to be sidelined in the rush toward online learning.

10/8/12: This article is translated to Serbo-Croatian language by Jovana Milutinovich from Geeks Education.

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 science of VidCon – Connecting with Science & Engineering through YouTube

Where I cover science at this year’s VidCon YouTube convention, take a look at science and engineering more broadly on YouTube, and suggest that for next year’s VidCon the organizers should bring together some of the leading science projects on YouTube with grass-roots science-advocates like Charlie McDonnell and Hank Green.  It’s a long post, but hopefully worth reading to the end!

This weekend I was dragged off to VidCon by my kids – my daughter is part of an up and coming YouTube channel, and reliably informed me that this was The Place to Be!

I thought I would use the opportunity to learn more and write about science and the online video community.  Expecting a convention of YouTubers to be full of narcissistic wannabe’s, videos of kittens and songs about double rainbows, I didn’t have much hope about finding something to write about it here.

How wrong I was!

Organized and hosted by brothers John and Hank Green (the vlogbrothers on YouTube), VidCon is emerging as the premier convention for people seriously into YouTube. Continue reading The science of VidCon – Connecting with Science & Engineering through YouTube

Radiation-Crazed Zombies in Anti-Vaccine Hand-Washing Health Scare – Possibly

OK so it’s a slightly misleading title, but I did want to draw your attention to the rather splendiferous Risk Science Blog.

When I took over as Director of the University of Michigan Risk Science last year, I wanted to find ways of connecting researchers and students here with a broader audience.  And what better way to do this than through a blog.  So earlier this year we launched the Risk Science Blog – an eclectic collection of news items, commentaries and opinions with the common thread that they all have something to do with making sense of public health risks in an increasingly complex world.

Since the launch, I have been extremely excited by the quality of the pieces that have been posted.  We have junior and senior faculty (including the Dean of the School of Public Health) writing for us, as well as students.  And we are beginning to develop a core of regular contributors – each with their own unique perspective on health risks and opportunities.

If you have any interest in unique and insightful perspectives on contemporary risk issues that will inform, challenge and sometimes amuse you, please check out the blog.

And that title?  So I cut and paste rather indiscriminately here, but over the past few months we have posted pieces on the Fukushima Daiich incident, zombie apocalypse preparedness, hand washing, and vaccine risk communication.  Just not all at once!

Please enjoy and pass on!

Oh, and if you want to follow the Risk Science Center on Twitter, Facebook, Vimeo or Linkedin as well, just follow the links!

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:


Larry Brilliant: Enabling sustainable humanity through getting serious about risk

Cross-posted from the Risk Science Blog


I’ve occasionally been accused of thinking big when it comes to Risk Science. So I was rather chuffed to hear former Executive Director of Larry Brilliant out-big me on every point as he delivered the 10th Peter M. Wege lecture here at the University of Michigan a couple of weeks ago.

Larry was talking about sustainable humanity, and the need to actively work toward a global society that overcomes problems (some old, some emerging) and continues to get better. But threaded through the lecture was the theme of risk, and the urgent need we face to become more educated and informed on the risks that humanity faces, and how together we can overcome them.

Many of the themes that emerged are near and dear to my heart, and are reflected in the Risk Science Center’s vision – enabling evidence-based and socially-responsive action on human health risks in a rapidly changing world. In fact, the lecture and Larry’s following answers to questions were so relevant to the Center that I felt like saying – next time someone asked what we were about – to simply say “what he said!”

Much of this was encapsulated in the following response to a question from Larry following the lecture:

We need a whole new generation of leaders, leaders who are cross-trained in governance, who understand risk literacy, who can communicate complex problems in simple ways, who truly believe in democracy, and who are willing to engage with their constituents in a way that ups the conversation. So people know what the hell they’re voting for. And what the consequences and the risks that they’re taking on. We’ve reached the stage where the public is being used as if it were the ultimate re-insurer. What happens when a nuclear power plant us built on an earthquake fault and things go bad? It’s paid for by the tax payers in ways that we haven’t contemplated. Who has done the risk cost benefit analysis of continuing to use fossil fuels? So these are not things that we normally train students with. It’s a shame but I think that the three “r’s” of reading, writing and arithmetic must have a fourth “r” added: risk; as we understand the ever-more risky world that we have inherited and the complex interrelated-ness of the factors that lead to it.

Of course, enabling sustainable humanity is about far more than risk. But, as Larry so eloquently indicated, we neglect developing a deep and sophisticated understanding of risk and how we should be responding to it at our peril.

The transcript of Larry Brilliant’s lecture can be read here, and the lecture and Q&A session can be listened to below:

[Track 1: Introductions. Track 2: lecture. Track 3: Q&A]

Dr. Larry Brilliant is Dr. Larry Brilliant is president of the Skoll Global Threats Fund, and a University of Michigan School of Public health alumnus.

The videos of the lecture and the following question and answer session can be watched here.

The New Toxicology of Sophisticated Materials: Nanotoxicology and Beyond

Cross-posted from The Risk Science Blog

Several months ago, I was asked by a colleague if I fancied co-authoring a review on nanotoxicology for a copy of Toxicological Sciences celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Society of Toxicology (coming out later this year).

Fool that I am, I agreed.  Interestingly though, as I and my co-authors (Martin Philbert and David Warheit) grappled with a topic we were all, to be frank getting a little fatigued with, it became clear that “nanotoxicology” as it is currently understood is merely a step towards a much bigger field of the “new toxicology of sophisticated materials”

The review is currently available here as an Advance Access publication from Toxicological Sciences.  In it we start by reviewing the history of the emergence of nanotoxicology as an integral part of the field of nanotechnology, and continue to examine some of the key toxicology-based challenges presented by engineered nanomaterials.

Yet we conclude that, despite the current flurry of activity in researching the toxicity of nanomaterials, the field of nanotoxicology is suffering from something of an identity crisis: Continue reading The New Toxicology of Sophisticated Materials: Nanotoxicology and Beyond

Davos 2011 – Committed to changing the state of the world

Cross-posted from the Risk Science Blog.

As it did last year, the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos has left me with a daunting task – how do I summarize the highlights of the meeting in a single, short post?

The answer of course is that I can’t – Davos is so complex, diverse and multi-layered that no single account could do it justice. But sitting here waiting for the flight home, I wanted to capture at least something of the past few days.

World Leaders – world issues

This year saw the usual parade of world-leaders passing through Davos, selling their wares in public, while cutting deals in private.

In public and private, the unfolding events in North Africa, the Moscow terrorist attack and the world economy dominated discussions.

As is fairly typical at Davos, not too much that was startling or new was announced in public. But this is a meeting where off the record meetings and encounters are everything. And given the isolation, camaraderie and personal access that pervades Davos, the barriers to meaningful exchanges are perhaps lower here than at almost any other gathering of the great and good.

As one person pointed out to me – many delegates simply cannot afford to bring their usual entourage, meaning that the chances of conversations that get to the heart of issues – rather than leading a carefully choreographed dance around them – are reasonably high. And of course this is further enabled by the many social occasions that smooth the way for serious conversations.

Business leaders – revealed values. This stripping away of the buffers between public personas and the people behind them is one aspect of Davos that continues to fascinate me. It’s one of the few places I know if where you can get a sense of who someone really is, not who the PR machinery tries to convince you they are (again, because most people end up having to leave the PR machinery at the door). And no-where do I find this more revealing than in talking with business leaders.

It may be because the World Economic Forum actively develops partnerships with organizations that share its commitment to improving the state of the world, but I’m encouraged by the number of high profile CEO’s and business leaders I speak with here who are motivated by far more than bottom-line dollars. A cynic might claim that it’s all part of the PR machinery, which managed to sneak past the barriers. But I don’t think it is. There’s no need for these people to spend a week of their busy schedule talking about how to make the word a better place – and what excites and inspires them – unless they really mean it.

Davos provides a rare glimpse of the idealists still alive and beating in these world-wise corporate leaders. Of course, talk is a lot easier (and cheaper) than action, and these people have to deal with colleagues, shareholders, stakeholders and an economic landscape that doesn’t necessarily allow their true values and passions to flourish . But I suspect that one of the “positive dangers” of Davos is that, having revealed their inner-self to others who have the capacity to fan the flames, many business leaders emerge just that little more motivated to look beyond the bottom line, and toward changing the world for the better.

Global risks – global opportunities

This year, global risks were a central theme of the Davos meeting. The World Economic Forum formally launched the new Risk Response Network, and risk permeated many of the sessions. The aim is to establish resources and mechanisms to respond to emerging global risks more effectively than in the past – whether they are associated with natural disasters, social collapse, financial melt-down or technological failure.

While most of the discussions revolved around avoiding risk or managing the consequences, there were a few that touched on actively mitigating risk – and supporting global economic and social growth through new approaches to risk. These included developing the means to actively reduce risks through technological, policy and social mechanisms. But they also included the need to increase resilience within global institutions, infrastructure and communities – so that when things go wrong, the system can respond and adapt quickly and effectively.

This need for resilience was highlighted in a final session on global risk I was participating in, as we considered what lessons can be learned from events in Tunisia and Egypt on our dependence on and the fragility of the internet.

Science and technology – more than entertainment

Science and technology were more prominent than usual at this year’s meeting. There were packed-out sessions on the current state of science, and on contemporary issues such as the nature of the universe and personalized medicine. Yet there was still a sense that this was entertainment for delegates – a light distraction from the serious business of putting the world right, and something for accompanying partners to attend.

Nevertheless, there were indications that this is changing. The World Economic Forum has established a science advisory council that will be looking at how science can be better-integrated into the program in future years. A number of conversations I had with scientists and technologists – and there were a surprising number of them at the meeting – revolved around their desire to see science and technology rise up the agenda. And business leaders like Ellen Kullman – CEO of DuPont – were vocal about the need to pay more attention to technology innovation in building a better world.

As this is one of the aims of the Global Agenda Council I chair, it was good to see the beginnings of a groundswell toward shifting from science and technology as the Davos entertainment, to making them a significant part of broader discussions on building a sustainable future.

Social media – WEF goes grass-roots?

The use of social media was huge at this year’s meeting.

I’m not sure whether the impact is there yet – that will come – but content generation was significantly higher than previous years. Over 400 delegates were tweeting from the meeting, providing real-time insight into proceedings. Delegates were also encouraged to record short YouTube videos responding to questions posed by members of the public – and many did (including a number of prominent participants). Many delegates contributed guest blogs to the WEF blog, providing further insight into the meeting. And FaceBook marketing director Randi Zuckerberg (sister of Mark) conducted livestream webcast interviews with everyone from Tony Blair to Bill Gates to Bono.

Having seen social media in action at this year’s meeting, I’m convinced that this is the beginning of a powerful outreach and engagement by WEF that breaks the established boundaries of the organization – watch this space!

Real lives – strong inspiration

There are numerous misconceptions about Davos – many of them characterizing it as a meeting where gray men in gray suits with gray imaginations get together to schmooze with other, equally gray men, usually with no appreciable outcome. But as anyone who has been a part of the meeting can attest to, this is about as far from the truth as you can get.

At the heart of Davos is a common desire to change the world for the better. Invited participants are carefully selected according to what they do – not just who they are (even the celebrities are here because of the initiatives they are involved in, rather than the star status attached to them. And paying participants are carefully filtered and cultured to encourage a meeting where common values permeate the conversations.

This is perhaps best summed up in this year’s closing session, where Klaus Schwab, the Executive Chairman of WEF, spoke with Christine Lagarde, the French Minister of Economy, Nick Vujicic, President of Life without Limbs, and two of the Davos Global ChangeMakers – Raquel Silva and Dan Cullum.

The topic was “Inspired for a lifetime”. Unusually for a meeting characterized as full of “gray men”, there was hardly a dry eye in the house. (you wouldn’t have known at the time, but I’ve yet to speak to someone who was there who didn’t admit to tearing up at times). But I’m convinced that this wasn’t because of an overtly emotional program – it was simply because the delegates recognized in the panelists a common desire to act to make the world a better place.

Without the context of the preceding four days, the session might have come across as overly sentimental. But with the weight of Davos behind it, it was grounded in a reality that transcended mere sentimentality.

But don’t just take my word for it – the closing session of Davos 2011 can be viewed below.

A bluffer’s guide to Risk Science in the 21st century

A few weeks ago, I gave a talk at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati under the slightly provocative title “Small Gods and the Art of Technology Innovation”.  The talk is now available on-line (slides and audio at least) – and viewable below – through the excellent work of the folk at CAC.

Rather sneakily, I used the opportunity to talk to a (mainly) lay audience about risk science in the 21st century – did I get away with it I wonder…?

Basic research and personal responsibility

Dan Sarewitz has a rather provocative commentary in Nature this morning, where he suggests that proposals to increase basic research may be good politics, but questionable policy.

The headline alone is probably enough to get some science-advocates’ blood boiling, whether they go on to read the piece or not: “Double trouble? To throw cash at science is a mistake” does nothing if not throw down the gauntlet to an already sensitive science community.

Beyond the provoking banner, Dan raises  serious if uncomfortable issues – there must come a point where investment in science is balanced within a much broader social context, and the consequences of not allocating funds elsewhere are weighed against the benefits of supporting research – especially blue skies research.  But reading the piece reminded me of an associated debate which seems to get rather less air time – the personal responsibility that comes with government research funding.

It’s an inescapable fact that, for every dollar, pound or Euro that governments invest in research, someone, somewhere is getting less money to spend on what they think is important.  In some cases, re-allocations may have minor social consequences.  In others, reduced spending elsewhere in favor of science may be profound impacts on the lives of individuals – especially those at the margins of society. Continue reading Basic research and personal responsibility

International Handbook on Regulating Nanotechnologies – sneak peak of contents

Back in the mists of time, I was approached with a crazy proposition – would I help co-edit a book on nanotechnologies regulation!  In a moment of weakness I said yes, and a little more than two and a half years later, the book is finally about to hit the shelves.

I actually think the resulting International Handbook on Regulating Nanotechnologies rather a useful, coherent and engaging collection of chapters – my co-editors Di Bowman and Graeme Hodge did a wonderful job encouraging a bunch of top thinkers in the field to write under occasionally whimsical but always relevant titles.

To whet your appetite prior to the book’s release sometime in November, here’s a sneak peak at the contents: Continue reading International Handbook on Regulating Nanotechnologies – sneak peak of contents

Ten weeks to save the world: Nature does the Singularity University

You’ve heard the rumors and read the hype – but what really goes on at the Singularity University, based at the NASA Ames campus in Silicon Valley?  Nature’s Nicola Jones recently went along to take a look, and her report has just been posted – it’s well worth reading.

The Singularity University was co-founded in 2008 by Ray Kurzweil and Peter Diamandis – two people not known for being shy and retiring when it comes to new ideas.  The mission is to

“assemble, educate and inspire leaders who strive to understand and facilitate the development of exponentially advancing technologies in order to address humanity’s grand challenges”

Each year the University runs an intense ten-week summer school for graduates, leading to something that Nicola – from a brief visit this August – describes as a “think tank mashed with a geek adventure camp and a business-networking cocktail party”.

When Nicola was writing her piece, she contacted a number of people – including me – for opinions and insight into the Singularity University. This is what I wrote: Continue reading Ten weeks to save the world: Nature does the Singularity University

Knitting science

Sitting in a meeting on informal science education recently, I was intrigued to see a respected academic working on her knitting.  And she wasn’t the only one.  Now I may have had a something of a sheltered life, but in over twenty years of attending scientific conferences and workshops, I think this was the first time I had come across public acts of wool-work.

I was fascinated.

This was reinforced the other week when, following Tweets from a science policy event at the British Library the Science Blogging Talkfest in London, Stephen Curry announced “I can confirm that @alicebell is indeed knitting.”

Alice Bell's "leaf scarf" - clearly, knitting is about more than woolly jumpers and never-ending scarves!

As well as being a lecturer in science communication at Imperial College, Alice Bell is also something of a knitting maven.  So I asked her whether there was anything I should be reading to explore this new-found fascination with knitting in meetings.

Instead, Alice threw me down the metaphorical rabbit-hole! Who knew there was such a rich intersection between science, math, and working with yarn?

I was aware of the work on modeling hyperbolic geometries by Daina Taimina of Cornell University, using crochet. (can I mention crochet in a knitting blog?)  But, as I’m discovering, there’s a whole sub-culture of knitting and crocheting science out there! Continue reading Knitting science

Texas Instruments Graphing calculators – essential math teaching aid, or a scam?

Last September regular readers of 2020 Science will recall that I was somewhat taken aback at having to fork out $100 for a Texas Instruments graphing calculator as my son started 7th grade math.

One academic year on, was the purchase worth it? (Yes, despite my shock, we did reluctant acquiesce to the school’s dictate and fork out the $100 on a TI-83 graphing calculator).

Did it boost my son’s IQ to dizzying new heights?  Did it make all the difference between genius and dunce in his Algebra I Honors class?  Did it actually help him learn?

I asked him. Continue reading Texas Instruments Graphing calculators – essential math teaching aid, or a scam?

I’m A Scientist 2010 ends, and the winner is…

An hour or so ago, the final winners of I’m A Scientist, Get Me Out Of Here were announced.  To my surprise, I made it to the last two standing in the Silicon Zone yesterday, and have been on the edge of my seat today waiting to see whether I was going to be ousted by the rather younger and infinitely more hip Marianne Baker.

And who won? Continue reading I’m A Scientist 2010 ends, and the winner is…

Just how risky can nanoparticles in sunscreens be? Friends of the Earth respond

Last week, I posed Friends of the Earth a challenge – “What is your worst case estimate of the human health risk from titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide nanoparticles in sunscreens?”  Georgia Miller of FoE Australia and Ian Illuminato of FoE in the US have kindly provided a detailed response.  Rather than just keep this as a comment on the original blog, I thought it deserved a wider airing – and so am posting it here.

I will respond to the response in a few days time.  In the meantime, I would be extremely interested in what others think of the use of nanoparticles in sunscreens, based on my original piece and Georgia and Ian’s piece below.  Please do comment – this seems to be an area that desperately needs some good and open discussion. Continue reading Just how risky can nanoparticles in sunscreens be? Friends of the Earth respond

A spectator’s guide to I’m A Scientist, Get Me Out Of Here!

If you want to participate in the rather fab science event I’m A Scientist, Get me Out Of Here I’m afraid you are out of luck – unless you happen to be one of the 100 scientists and 8000 teenagers taking part.

But you can still get a thrill from watching the competition unfold on-line while experiencing science as a spectator sport as you’ve never seen it before! And believe me, this is an event you’re not going to want to miss – especially if you have any interest whatsoever in engaging teenagers in science.

So, if you want to watch the fun, where do you begin?

Here are three ways you might start: Continue reading A spectator’s guide to I’m A Scientist, Get Me Out Of Here!

As scientists create the first synthetic cell, the future safety of synthetic biology will depend on sound science

Last week’s announcement from the J. Craig Venter Institute that scientists had created the first-ever synthetic cell was a profoundly significant point in human history, and marked a turning point in our quest to control the natural world.  But the ability to use this emerging technology wisely is already being dogged by fears that we have embarked down a dangerous and morally dubious path.

It’s no surprise therefore that, hot on the heels of last week’s announcement, President Obama called for an urgent study to identify appropriate ethical boundaries and minimize possible risks associated with the breakthrough.

This was a bold and important move on the part of the White House.  But its success will lie in ensuring the debate over risks in particular is based on sound science, and not sidetracked by groundless speculation. Continue reading As scientists create the first synthetic cell, the future safety of synthetic biology will depend on sound science

Making sense of nanotechnology – a piece of cake!

The quality’s a bit flaky, but I thought I would upload this video for a bit of fun.  It’s the first – and possibly the last – time I will simultaneously attempt to unravel the mysteries of nanotechnology… while baking a cake!

Filmed at the National Museum of American History as part of Nanodays 2010, the presentation was part of a public dialogue on  nanotechnology.  My task: help set the scene for a discussion on who should oversee the responsible development of nanotechnology.

Wanting to try something a little different, I thought I would play around with cooking as an analogy for nanotechnology.  The analogy is a useful one – I only scrape the surface of where it could be taken here.  But whether it was a wise decision to actually cook in public – well, I’ll leave judgment on that one to you!

[flashvideo file=/movies/20100404/20100404_nanotechnology_cake.flv image=/movies/20100404/20100404_nanotechnology_cake.jpg width=600 height=357 /]

One thing the video doesn’t show is how the cake turned out.  I would like to say that it was light, moist and delicious.  However, just in case someone posts pictures of the actual result, I have to be straight with you – it sucked!  Personally, I blame the lab oven provided by the Smithsonian – I can cook, honest!  Perhaps a bonus lesson though is that, even with the best preparations, unanticipated consequences are always possible – whether baking a cake or making the latest nanotech-enabled gizmo!