Enthusiasm, exploration, discussion

I am of the opinion that anyone can be good at science – all you need is the three abovementioned tools. I think the main problem is that a lot of people are scared of science – it’s riddled with esoteric language, big words and jargon. But it needn’t be this way! With “science celebrities” like Robert Winston, Brian Cox, et al, science is becoming very accessible. I had a colleague accuse this practice as “dumbing down” science, but I strongly disagree: it is making science approachable for non-scientists (including children), hopefully encouraging further enquiry. If you enjoy and understand something scientific, you are more likely to Google the subject later, or maybe even (god forbid!) read a book around the subject.

Even better than passive television viewing? Why, hands on events of course. I went to one yesterday: Science Uncovered at the Natural History Museum

This was an extremely popular event. I arrived shortly after the event had started (it was running from 4-10pm) and it was already extremely busy. By the time I left, people were queueing around the block to get into the museum.

There were “stalls” set up all around the museum, mainly within the central hall but also some in the Darwin Centre and around the hallways. Each stall was dedicated to a different branch of science (botany, entomology, palaeontology, etc.) and had scientists on hand talking about various artefacts and answering a myriad of questions.

I am always fascinated by insects – they are so glitteringly beautiful, like little jewels. And some of them are absolutely huge! Unfortunately, the entomology stall was simply too busy for me to chat to one of the scientists, so I moved on to zoology next door.

Here, I spoke to a lady scientist about threatened species, and she happily described to me what we could learn about musculature by just looking at skeletal structure. Above is a photo of two Barbary lion skulls (extinct sub-species of lion specifically from North-west Africa), found in the Tower of London, oddly enough!! And then on the right is a skull from a Yangtze River dolphin – some of you may know that these have been declared officially extinct very recently, which is quite a sobering thought. This skull is the museum’s only specimen in their entire collection, and one of only about four in museum collections worldwide.

I had a lovely chat with a chap at a botany stand, who enlightened me about different types of seaweed and the massive variety of British fungi. I now feel like learning how to identify mushrooms is not as tricky as I thought it might be. Maybe one day I’ll suck up the courage to go foraging? If you too are interesting in foraging for mushrooms and live in the London area, you should check out the London Fungi group.

Next, I had a chat with a gent about corals. I don’t “get” corals. I mean… are they plants? Are they mineral formations? No, they’re animals. The rocky formations are skeletal structures, and the colourful flower-like structures are like anemones, and all of the identical “mouths” on each structure are genetically identical to each other! Also, they have symbiotic algae buddies living in them. Who would’ve thought it?

Finally, I went to see another bug-man (coo coo kachoo). They had plenty of locusts, cicadas, stick insects etc. on show. But most of all, I faced one of my “fears”….

I held a goddamn cockroach!! Win. Actually very cute, in a weird, buggy sort of way. Rather than the scuttling, creepy kind of cockroach that I was expecting (and the type I hate), I got a slow moving, flightless boy, with pretty spots on his head. Not sure what breed he was, but he was nice.

At about 6pm, they were just setting up the various bars around the museum, but unfortunately, I had to take my leave at this point. You see, Ben (as I mentioned yesterday) was going up to Suffolk to get the big Capri, and I had arranged to meet him at Liverpool Street for a very quick bite to eat. After we wolfed down our bacon double cheese burgers (yes, Burger King), he ran for his train and I made my way towards the Royal Institution.

I got there at about 7:30pm, and found my college mate Rebecca waiting for me – she was super eager and had arrived a good 10-15 minutes before me! We meandered down to Albemarle Street, and got ourselves seated in the lecture theatre. I could tell Rebecca was excited – she kept looking at the clock and asking why they hadn’t started yet.

Bring on Professor Simon Baron-Cohen (yes, cousin of Borat), to talk about empathy. He covered various conditions that result in loss of empathy, including three types on personality disorder (Borderline, Psychopathic and Narcissistic) as well as looking into Asperger Syndrome (a form of autism). Whilst he did give some basic facts about the personality disorders, his main focus was on autism (understandable, as this is where he does the majority of his research). He discussed the autistic difficulty with emotion recognition, problems with differing perspectives, and so forth. However, he also discussed the possibility of improving emotion processing through practice (he specifically mentioned two interactive DVDs, Mind Reading and the Transporters) – showing data from his research, he illustrated a significant rise in the ability to recognise emotions for children with autism, within as little 4 weeks. However, he did not show whether or not the improvements were permanent – do children need to continue practising, using the DVD, ad infinitum, or do they “learn the knack”? I wanted to ask this question during the short Q&A session at the end of his hour-long lecture (the first time I have ever attempted to ask a question at the Ri!) but we ran out of time. Shame 😦 Still, a fascinating talk.

After the talk, Rebecca and I decided to have a “quick cocktail” at the Space&Time bar – this swiftly turned into two cocktails, whitebait, and chatting to strangers. Rebecca had two gin Martinis (her weapon of choice), whereas I experimented with their cocktail menu – I started with a Rude Cosmopolitan (Ocho tequila, Cointreau, lime and cranberry juice) but later went back to previous favourite, the pink Mojito (Bacardi, lime, sugar, mint, and raspberry purée). A fun and chatty Irish lady came back to the bar once or twice to chat to us (we didn’t follow most of it, but she was friendly and enthusiastic…) and even let us try her red wine (a Malbec? Not sure). As I mentioned, we tried the whitebait, but I thought the little fishes themselves were a bit too flaky for the thick tartar sauce, and mine kept falling apart. Rebecca was obviously either a wizard or had “the knack” as none of hers fell to bits.

Then, we got chatting to two gents – we sat around a table, and discussed audio perception. When the inquisitive engineer (Danilo, of Imperial college) started asking us how he might design an experiment like the Yarbus test (saccadic exploration of images) but for tracking selective listening, we knew we were out of our depth: tracking eye movement is fairly straight-forward, as you watch how the eyes physically move. But tacking selective listening? We don’t flap our ears around: we just attend to one message over the other (whether consciously or unconsciously, as illustrated by different forms of the dichotic listening test). So this selective hearing could be a purely cognitive process, not physical as with looking. So how do we measure it?

Hah. Tricky. We tried to talk around the subject, but it was tricky, as these were two incredibly intelligent men. They were fascinating to chat too – as well as Danilo the engineer, there was Henry (of MIT!) who was originally a physicist, but now also dabbles in Tai Chi and massage.

We chatted away until gone 11:30, before we realised the time and said our goodbyes. I got home around midnight, had a Horlicks and promptly fell asleep in my armchair in front of QI.

Any ideas on the aural perception front? Let me know!

(P.S. I did go out to the V&A with Louise today, but I am now thoroughly knackered. I will write about that tomorrow! 🙂

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