PUGS & CONFIRMATION BIAS

 

A peculiar thing happened to me recently, which highlighted the power of seeing what one expects to see.I’m frightened of dogs, but with one exception.  I think pugs are very cute, and they’re not proper dogs, right? More like a really ugly cat.

So one morning I was leaving my boyfriend’s home, and encountered a pug in the lift down. So as I mentioned before, I am nervous around dogs. But this cheeky little animal was lively and funny, and didn’t have me clawing at the lift doors in order to escape.

Grumpy_Cat_by_Gage_Skidmore
Photo by GAGE SKIDMORE. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0[
Up until this point, things were going to plan. I was on time for my leisurely stroll to the office; the hilarious little dog was excited about the imminent outdoors-ness it would experience. And then the lift arrived at the ground floor. The little dog became even more enthusiastic and downright refused to go on the lead. I couldn’t exit the lobby because the the sliding doors remain open for about 5 seconds after they are released, which is approximately 10 times longer than the average Pug Escape Time. So I steeled myself, helped the owner chase the manic creature around the entrance area, and held on to it while its lead was affixed. And it was actually quite fun. So much fun, in fact, that the situation could only have been improved if “Yakety Sax” had been playing in the building. And that was that.

And then I bumped into the pug and owner a few more times in the lift.  I grew quite fond of the weird little dog and started to look forward to seeing it.  I met them in the gardens, on the street, and on the way to the shops.  It seemed that I was seeing an awful lot of them.

One day I got in the lift and there had clearly been an ‘accident’ on the floor.  There was a moist patch and a, um, distinctive odour.  Totally gross, I thought, but was it that darling little dog?

I realised that I was seeing more and more of this pug, and when I didn’t, I missed it a little.  And I started to notice other pugs.  Everything I saw was pug-shaped.  Coincidence?

And then this appeared in my Twitter feed:

From the excellent @drranj, presenter of Get well Soon and performer of general Telly Doctor duties.
From the excellent @drranj, presenter of Get well Soon and performer of general Telly Doctor duties.

And then this!

pug2

OMG!!! PUGS R EVERYWHERE!!!

Well, no, they’re not.  I’ve probably seen a number of pugs that is proportionate to the number of all dogs in Manchester that I would be expected to encounter, excluding the times when I’ve put myself in situations where I was more likely to be ‘stalked by pugs’.  I hang around a block of flats where lots of people own small dogs, and I’ve been affected by one incident that sticks in my memory and makes me more likely to think of pugs, and hence pay more attention to the times when pugs are present.

This is how confirmation bias works. Results and research that confirm your opinions and beliefs are favoured over an objective assessment of all the information. It’s pretty harmless when applied to Pug Frequency. I can happily exist in my fantasy world where I dream of pugs all day long and disregard the Alsatians, Boxers, and Spaniels. But what about in the context of, say, politics? Science? The Media? Education? Healthcare? Justice?Here’s some Food For Thought from RJ Metrics.com. There are too many articles and examples for me to link them all. But seeing as I began by posting pictures of cats and dogs (what else is the Internet for?), here’s some fun graphs about causation not equalling correlation: Spurious Correlations

WINCHESTER SCIENCE FESTIVAL

 

Last weekend (25th – 27th July 2014), I attended Winchester Science Festival, which was a special birthday treat that I had sort of been hinting I’d like to attend for the preceding couple of days or so (well, since about April). And so my wish was granted! Here’s an overview of the weekend; I might write on individual topics in more detail another time. Some of the topics have links to excerpts of the talks, so read on…The event was held in Winchester Discovery Centre, which is an awesome combination of library, exhibition space, and lecture hall. It’s way different from the quiet and bland public library I grew up with. And it’s a shining example of why public libraries are so important.

When I met the WSF organisers at QEDcon 2014,  I was promised frogs, sex and robots.  And I was not disappointed.  First, the robots:

The Mantis hexapod was demonstrated outside the Discovery Centre – it’s an all-terrain vehicle with six legs that can be powered by a human sitting in the control pod, or remotely.  We were given a demonstration of how the robot moves and deals with uneven surfaces, and a brief description of the science and mathematics behind the Mantis’s movement.  It reminded me of this clip from American Dad, but for a demonstration of the real Mantis, click here.

www.mantisrobot.com

There were three whole days of science-y wonderfulness, but I sadly missed the Friday.  I had work to do and I wasn’t able to travel down until 8pm Friday night (not much sleep before Saturday!).  I later heard that this day was more aimed at younger people, and I would have expected there to be a few school parties.  Some of the Saturday talks had children in attendance, and the rocket guy especially (more about him later!) would be great for presenting to schools.

Here’s what happened on Friday (assuming they didn’t change their schedule at the last minute).  The links below lead to the WSF home page, but also check out The Winchester Guide for additional info.

The Fire Show
Mutants. What Are They Like?
Punk Science: Supermassive Space
Flames, Brains & Nuclear Reactors
Exploring The Universe
Science Of The Circus
Nature-Inspired Robots For Science & Medicine
Frogs & Friends + What Do I Know?

So, on to Saturday. I woke up after about 5 hours sleep (see my earlier musings on sleep for why this was especially troublesome for me), and left the hotel in a mad panic due to taking 45 minutes in the bathroom (hey it was my birthday and I therefore demand to exercise full Diva Rights). We were just in time for….

The Science Of Photography, with Andrew Pye & Dr Radu Sporea.  This was a talk with loads of demonstrations and some audience participation (yay!).  This was a discussion of how you can use science to take great photographs – but very accessible, explaining potentially complicated concepts in a succinct way.  It was a great introduction to some of the methods that professional photographers use, but with the science to back it up.  Highlights included using a jar of coloured ping pong balls to illustrate image quality, and how to use zoom correctly when taking a portrait to avoid unflattering effects (I would love to get some images of this on here but 1. I can’t find any videos of this talk online, and 2. I don’t think the audience guinea pig would be all that grateful for that moment being stored for posterity on the internet).

Check out these amazing cuttlefish dudes.  Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0
Check out these amazing cuttlefish dudes. Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

Carnival Of The Animal Senses, with Dr Helen Czerski.  Helen is delivering this talk at the next Girl Geek Tea Party in Manchester, so I won’t give too much away.  Northern Friends: You too can catch a glimpse of the awesomeness that was at WSF this year!  It’s taking place at TechHub on 10th August.   I learnt about some of the cool ways that animals perceive the world differently to us, and how they can detect things that humans can’t.  The world looks so different for other beings, and we can see  a fraction of it in comparison. Also that cuttlefish are my new favourite animals.  I hope she talks about cuttlefish again.  Dr Czerski is a really engaging speaker, who delivers her topic with passion.  She’s also going to be presenting a related series on BBC2 soon.

The Rocket Guy was not the name of the talk or the person presenting it, but due to a last minute change to the schedule, I don’t have either to hand.  Anyway, this talk gave a history of rockets from their use as military weapons, through to Wernher von Braun, to their development post-WWII.  But most excitingly of all, this potted history of  rockets was accompanied by demonstrations that focussed on setting fire to things and blowing them up.  Hurrah!  Many of the topics covered in this talk were expanded on in other talks over the weekend, which gave a nice flow to the content of the festival.

We Are All Star Dust, with Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell. This presentation was suitable for all ages, discussing how all matter in the universe was derived from stars and distributed to form other stars, planets, and eventually us. This was then followed by an interview with Dame Jocelyn, conducted by Neil Denny (of the little Atoms podcast – full interview available here). I could relate to so many of the things that were spoken about, especially regarding perceptions of women in science; as Dame Jocelyn acknowledged in her interview, many things have changed but more work needs to be done.

And then for something new… Human Genetic & Cultural Evolution was presented by Prof Mark Thomas. The theories presented here are at the cutting edge of research, so it was pretty exciting to be around to hear about work that isn’t commonly known about.  The talk considered how culture affects human development, and how human development affects the emergence of culture.  there are connections to population size, and the size of individual groups of humans.  Apparently about 150 people is the right size for both producing cultural artefacts and the optimum number of Facebook friends.

Into Thin Air – Aviation’s Upper Limits, with Dr Andras Sobester.  The cool thing about this talk was the mythbusting element, as well as the presenter’s humorous style of delivering a very dry subject. Lots and lots of statistics, and how they relate to incidents that have been in the news. And no, the air conditioning on a plane will not make you any more likely to catch a cold.

The Best Of BrightclubBright Club is a comedy troupe made up of scientists & researchers, and runs in about ten cities in the UK (including Manchester!).  We were treated to an evening with three stand-ups plus the brilliant Jo Stephenson performing science and non-science based comedy songs accompanied by the ukulele – which made it just that little bit more fun!

And that was the end of Saturday – the best birthday I’ve ever had.  Thanks to the WSF organisers, and my lovely boyfriend for making this possible.

Sunday

Dying BeeSadly, Science Gentleman had to leave early today to get back to work in the Grim North.  After far too long saying our goodbyes in the hotel car park, I went for a pleasant stroll into Winchester via the B3404.  The scenery was pretty decent, but not as dramatic as that in say the Peak District (sorry, Home Counties).  I did get a great photo of a dying bee (right).  Nature is both beautiful and cruel.

Anyway, back to the science:

2014-07-27 11.04.48Extreme Environment Physiology, delivered by Prof Mike Tipton. This was a great talk to start the day with, looking at the extremes the human body can handle, and how we can use technology to break past these barriers. The talk covered extreme scenarios from mountaineering, to deep-sea diving, to the conditions firefighters endure on duty. Interesting fact of the talk: If you take your goldfish (in its tank) for a drive, it will get carsick! Please, please don’t try this at home, not even in the name of science.

Plumbers Of The Brain: The Blood-Brain Barrier, with Prof Dareck Gorecki. This talk was pretty heavy-going, but really, really interesting. It explained how the B-BB works, what can get through, what can’t, and by what mechanisms. There were interesting discussions on how we deliver medicines to the brain, and how toxoplasmosis affects the brain. Interesting fact of the talk: mice infected with toxoplasmosis are attracted to cats.  Makes you look at Tom & Jerry in a different light.

Emerging Technologies – A talk by Dr Peter Wagett from IBM on the development of computing and the increasing use of data.  Very interesting, with an exceptionally long Q&A session – which was really enlightening too.  Interesting fact of the talk (which, apparently, is common knowledge): HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey is thusly named because H-A-L is one letter ‘less’ than I-B-M.

It’s Only Rocket Science – with Dr Lucy Rogers.  In this talk we built a virtual rocket and looked at the science behind getting it in the air.  This talk was especially good for children, and had a good level of audience participation.  Interesting fact of the talk: satellites in geostationary orbit occupy an altitude of 35,800 km.

Brilliant Brain Box: How The Skull Shaped Evolution with Paolo Viscardi. I was really looking forward to this talk, but got waylaid by a really interesting chat with a fellow attendee. Sorry Paolo! I have however heard that the talk was excellent, so I’m hoping someone posts it online soon…

2014-07-27 17.54.50And the final talk of the weekend was Secrets Of Sex, with Sally Le Page. This was a look at sex and evolution, and reproduction in the animal kingdom. Already an exciting topic, this was made more interesting by the humour used, a little bit of music and even a fairytale. Sally is an excellent presenter and I hope to go to more of her talks or events.

There was a final night of entertainment on the Sunday, by Being747. I really wanted to stay, but Sunday was a school night and I needed to get back to Manchester.

Some other things that happened:

There was a 3D Printing Workshop going on in the exhibition area, but I just didn’t get the chance to take a look – I was so busy attending talks that I never found a spare moment.

The University of Southampton Roadshow was located at the front of the Discovery Centre, where you just couldn’t miss them. We were fortunate enough to have glorious sunshine for the whole weekend, which makes it a gamble that was more likely to work in Winchester than Manchester.

2014-08-02 23.10.58So I met some old friends and new ones, and vowed to get more involved with WSF next year.  So armed with my ‘VOLUNTEER’ t-shirt (yes, they adopted me as one of their own despite not even living in the same county as the team), a ton of stickers (right) and a laptop,  I shall be blogging, tweeting, promoting and whatever else I can. Can’t wait for WSF 2015!

SLEEP PART 1

 

Right now, I’m just getting ready to start work.  It’s 5.19pm on a Friday afternoon, which seems a bit of an unorthodox time to begin such things, but allow me to explain.

Firstly, I work two jobs at the moment.  Monday to Thursday I’m an engineer; Friday to Sunday I’m a PhD researcher.  So I have a little more flexibility at the weekend.  I’ll probably work up until about 10pm tonight, and in bursts of activity over the next two days.  I like the flexibility that I have in my studies, and because I have no set hours I can just get to work on an idea whenever it occurs to me.

The second thing is that I have a thyroid problem, which makes me s-l-e-e-p-y. Like, really sleepy. Much like the teenager who goes to school on time Monday to Friday, then sleeps half the weekend, I have a lot of catching up to do. I really struggle to be awake when societal constraints dictate that I should be, so I spend half the week fighting my body’s wishes, and the other half over-indulging them.

If left to my own devices I can happily sleep for over 12 hours. And last night that’s what I did. A full, glorious 14 hours. And I feel so refreshed. Now it’s time to do some work.

MANCHESTER ARMCHAIR PHILOSOPHERS – CENSORSHIP

 

CensorshipI attend the Manchester Armchair Philosophers group, and we meet once a month at the Royal Oak in Chorlton to discuss a preselected topic. The topics are varied, and often unconventional. This month’s discussion was on a topic that is a little more commonplace, but sure to get everyone’s attention.

I introduced our talk on Censorship, which posed the questions in the handout (right). As with many of these talks, the idea isn’t strictly to adhere to the prescribed questions and wording on the crib sheet, but to discuss the topic widely, and in whatever style or vein one desires.

The way the meetings work is that we all gather in a circle and the topic is introduced by the Chair. Then we break off into groups of 4 or 5 and discuss the topic amongst ourselves. We usually talk about the subject for, say, 45 minutes, and then we gather around the table again to share our thoughts and opinions with the whole group. We usually first nominate one member of each ‘team’ to describe the whole team’s discussion, and then we go round the circle individually to talk about something we learnt or feel strongly about. It’s really interesting to hear other people’s ideas, and you can learn so much from other people’s debates, as well as your own.

Usually, people gather in the bar downstairs after the debate, sometimes to carry on the discussion, and often to talk about completely unrelated (but still stimulating) things.

I don’t have the space (or memory) to go into everything that we spoke about here, but censorship is a massive topic that everyone has a view on. Some discussions can lead to groupthink, but this one really didn’t. Despite being in a large group of people with (seemingly) similar backgrounds and political preferences, the variety of viewpoints was very wide, and all over the spectrum. I was pleasantly surprised! I also got a lot of praise for introducing this topic, which felt pretty good. I hope to do another one sometime, but we seem to have topics chosen for a good few months yet.

Previous discussions have included: “Love”, “Is there such a thing as a truly altruistic action?”, and “Is there really any poverty in the UK?”. As you can see, we really have a lot to talk about.

NB: No formal philosophy training required. Most people who turn up don’t have any formal philosophy education, but we do love to explore philosophical subjects. The group is accessible and a great night out, no matter what your training.

This book (Do You Think What You Think You Think?) is a really manageable (and rather fun) pop introduction to philosophy. You’ll probably find it infuriating at first – I wanted to yell at this book in a similar way to how I shout at Question Time – but it’s just encouraging you to think critically about what you believe and what you say you believe. Sometimes it doesn’t seem to leave much room for manoeuvre, with quite rigid ways of looking at an argument; but it gets you thinking, right?

 

INSPIRATION

 

The name for this blog came from my four-year-old daughter, who tearfully said to me, “I can’t be a science lady, because I can’t do science”. This filled me with both joy and sadness, because on the one hand I thought the concept of “science ladies” sounded quite sweet (although I usually refer to myself as a scientist, rather than a science lady – for some reason it sounds a bit more professional); and on the other I wondered who had given this idea to a four-year-old child.

There are many articles, papers, and stories in the media about how our attitudes towards women’s abilities and career choices are shaped at a very young age. My current favourite is this one, from The Huffington Post:Powerful Ad Shows What A Little Girl Hears When You Tell Her She’s Pretty

Additionally, this is one of my favourite books on the topic: Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine.

In this book, the author describes a systematic review of various studies that consider gender differences, and encourages the reader to think critically about what the outcomes of such studies really tell us. You can buy the book and check out some very detailed customer reviews via the link on the right.

Oh, and you can be a science lady, if you want to. It’s hard work but definitely worth it.