Category: Recommended

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.

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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,

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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 Google.org, 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.

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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.

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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!

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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

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Cross-posted from the Risk Science Blog [Transcript] 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 Google.org 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

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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:

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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

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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…?

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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.

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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:

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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:

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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.” 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!

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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!

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ABOUT
 

2020 Science is the creation of Andrew Maynard - a Professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the University of Michigan. Andrew spends his time obsessing over effective science communication; the responsible development and use of emerging technologies; and how understanding risk can help inform smart decisions.  

As well as writing a regular column for the journal Nature Nanotechnology, He posts regularly here at "2020 Science", and on Twitter as @2020science.  He also produces short, entertaining, and (hopefully) informative videos on understanding health risks on his YouTube channel Risk Bites

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