Archive for February, 2010

Hottest January on record

It seems that January 2010 was the hottest January on record. So, to anybody that suggested that the UK snow was evidence against anthropogenic global warming… sorry, you were wrong. Just saying.

There’s a great account of this over at the Climate Progress blog.


A short story

Committed to Flames

Sat, huddled in the Jeep, his pencil scratched the paper of his notebook. He appreciated words on pages. Dictaphones and computers had never appealed, and he tended to file copy over the phone, especially when he was in a particularly remote spot. Now wasn’t really even the time to be writing, but Justin was committed, a professional, and mechanical in his ability to write anywhere. You had to be. He heard shots. The vehicle in which he hid sat in the corner of a township square, hemmed in by short, white buildings that were beginning to crumble. Tattered clothes flapped in the wind, hanging from a ragged line on the roof of the closest house. Screams. A routine patrol, they had said. A quiet outing with the troop in which he was embedded. But he knew his work carried risks. This was that risk.

He could no longer concentrate on his notes. The sounds of gunfire were more frequent. They were getting closer. He knew that there was nothing he could do. Closer still. The sergeant major had barked at him, told him he’d be safest in here. He hadn’t dared challenge him. The shots grew louder. He hunkered down into the seat a little further. The sound deafening now. The jeep buzzed with the noise outside. A loud crack. Rounds began to tear through his hiding place. He pushed his hair back, slick with sweat, breathed out deeply. He sank into the foot well, curling himself tightly into a ball. And now the loudest noise, somehow metallic. Then silence.

And light. The brightest, whitest light he’d seen.

* * *

‘This is not an equivalent relationship. If I were to say to you, I don’t care about books, why should I learn to write well? Why, you’d think I was an ignoramus. But this is your attitude to science, isn’t it? If you simply couldn’t do it, that would be excusable, I suppose, but it’s the fact that you take a perverse pride’ – my father, leaning limply on the mantelpiece, spat his p’s out wetly, and the effect was almost pathetic – ‘a perverse pride in your ignorance.’

I wouldn’t want to suggest to you that I’m some form of Luddite, you know, but I never really felt an affinity with the natural sciences, nor technology. My parents were both scientists: my mother was a professor of biology, published in all the major journals, respected among her peers; my father was a senior mechanical engineer for an automotive company, who you could thank for the invention of the airbag and those wretched pop-out cup holders. As I was their only child, I was encouraged to pursue a career in the sciences but, frankly, the idea left me cold. I’m unsure whether it was teenage rebellion or something more than that; an innate distaste for a so-called understanding of the world around me, maybe? Anyway, instead, as a child I immersed myself in language, literature, the written word. I consumed the classics, devoured poetry and ate whole whatever books I could.

I revelled not only in my reading but my writing, too. I would scribble ideas for a play on the bus; spend hours perfecting a new poem in my bedroom; agonise over the opening sentence of my latest short story. My poor parents; they worried about it. To them, writing was a means to an end: to my mother, a way of communicating her real work – her toils in the laboratory – to the rest of the scientific community; to my father, a way of communicating, yes, but only on the most basic, mechanistic level:

memoranda, letters, that kind of thing – he didn’t care for ‘flowery language’, for the finely-crafted sentence.

He was a softly spoken, well mannered soul, my father. You might even say a bit wet. But he became exasperated by my obsession with literature; he thought it a waste of a good mind, an instrument of distraction. I remember a cold November afternoon – I must have been around fifteen, though some of the finer details elude me in my current state – when I lay in front of the open fire in that small but cosy sitting room, reading Siegfried Sassoon. My father tried to speak to me, but I couldn’t bring myself to listen; my head was spinning with metaphor and diction, the pity of war and imminent dystopia. I remember vividly his face – wild eyed, flushed cheeks – as he tore the book from my hands: his expression contorted, at once disappointed and angered. I can picture still how the fire licked at that book; how the pages curled with the heat; how those words, wonderful words, were committed to flames.

* * *

The walls of simple bright white. And the smell: clean, chlorinated, a subtle minerality. These are how people realise they’re in a hospital, she thought to herself. That’s how he’ll realise he’s in hospital. The flicker of the ECG caught her eye: his blood pressure and pulse were rising. Not dramatically, but they had been low the past few days and now it looked to be improving. Through the door of the private room she signalled to the consultant who was some way down the corridor. He nodded, tapped his watch and raised his hand, palm forward, all five digits outstretched. She took from this that he meant he’d be five minutes, but knew that in reality he’d probably be an hour. It was always just words with him.

She had intended to check on her other patients but, as she moved to close the door behind herself, she noticed his jaw began to move. Staring at his neck, the muscles tightened. His tan had faded through the weeks. She decided to stay an extra minute, in case he became aware of his surroundings. It wasn’t that she had spare time – as a doctor in this department, there was always something to be doing – but here more than elsewhere they liked to ensure that their patients understood what was happening. They tried to provide a comfortable environment in which their patients could come to terms with what had happened to them.

His eyes moved slowly under their lids. Through the skin, so thin and delicate, their movement suggested they were surveying the room. The slimmest of openings was perceptible. Just, and only just, she could make out a sliver of white. White like the walls of the room. He was straining, forcing himself to open his eyes. As that white sliver grew larger, he turned his head slowly to face her. Involuntarily he let out a noise, half groan, half cough. It sounded coarse and dry, his throat starved of moisture. She had watched hundreds of people wake from unconsciousness: from coma, from anaesthetic, from sleep. Each as mesmeric as the last. These days, though, she associated the regain of consciousness with those brutal realities her patients faced. She waited. Those walls, that smell. He needed a moment to take it all in. He’d know where he was – they all do – but she always gave her patients time to take in their surroundings. He’s a man who’s seen the horrors of war, she thought, he’ll respect the simple facts. She spoke softly, trying to sound compassionate, trying to mask that mechanical tone.

‘Good afternoon, Mr. Hooper.’


‘I know there must be a lot going through your mind, but you don’t need to worry. Everything’s OK. Ask anything you want, and I’ll try and answer as fully as I can. For now, though, don’t worry about trying to articulate your thoughts.’

‘I’m, I… Am I, Is this a hospital?’

‘Yes, Mr. Hooper. You were involved in a… a conflict. We don’t expect you’ll remember exactly what happened but…’

‘Can you call me Justin? Please? Is that OK?’

‘Of course, of course.’

‘A conflict? I thought…’

Justin trailed off. That moment, in the township, felt like it should have been his last. Like it was his last. The instant, searing pain. The heat. The light. The noise. It seemed unfathomable to him that he could have survived. The doctor looked down at him. Was she was allowing him time? He couldn’t think properly.

‘If you were going to say you thought you were dead, Mr. Hooper,’ she said, struggling to keep a half-smile, a knowing pride from her face, ‘then you’d be correct. Well, almost. You sustained massive injuries. Your legs and lower torso were badly damaged. It left us a lot of work to do. You’ve been sedated for over a month while we’ve tried to help you the best we could.’

Justin turned his head and looked down the bed. Though a white sheet covered his body, from the middle of his chest to the end of the bed, he was fairly certain that six feet from his eyes he could see what looked like feet, and pointing in the right direction at that. A little closer, he could see the shape of what appeared to be legs, with the sheet forming that characteristic dip between the two. And then, it seemed, they joined his body. He was amazed. Had modern medicine really reached such a point? How had this passed him by? He’d seen field hospitals in the past: children torn to shreds by landmines, crude amputations, grown men crying out for their mothers. How could he have been so lucky?

‘You managed to reconstruct…’

‘As I say, we had a lot of work to do. You were left with too little physical structure for us to work with. It’s difficult to reconstruct something when there’s nothing there to start with. It wasn’t so much a case of reconstruction as… construction.’

‘I… I’m, not sure I follow Dr…?’


‘Pardon?’ Her soft mouth and long, dark hair were at odds with her stern glasses and cold, bright blue eyes. Did her find her attractive? He couldn’t tell.

‘Dr. Lipkiss. You asked. Anyway, as I was saying, due to the damage, we had to use some of the more… exotic technologies that we have at our disposal. We managed to rescue what remained of the viable tissue making up your heart and lungs. Without that, there would have been nothing for us to work with. We managed to reconstruct

your thorax using tissue grown from stem-cell cultures. It behaves like real tissue, by and large.

‘We grafted your rebuilt thorax on to a realistic, automated bio-ped system. It’s been under development for years. You’re the first patient to have presented the correct case for its use, though.’

‘Sorry, I… It’s just… I’ve never been very technically minded. I’m a little confused by what you’re saying. This automated bio-ped system? It sounds like it has two feet, at least?’

‘Well, you’re right there. It does have two feet. More to the point, you have two feet. You have its two feet.’

‘Its two feet?’

‘It’s… well, it’s rather complicated, but essentially the lower half of your body, from the diaphragm down, is… mechanized. It’s… robotic. Don’t you see? You’re a beacon of hope, Mr. Hooper. You’re a miracle of modern science.’

Justin lay in silence. He certainly didn’t feel like a so-called beacon of hope. He hadn’t the faintest idea what modern science could achieve. He’d brushed away his parents’ suggestions that science might be interesting, turned his back on technologies that people said might make his life easier. Now, those very technologies he’d shunned made up his very being, made him complete.

He remembered that book, burning on the fire. His precious words. They were just sophistry. An illusion.

A Meta-post

I’m unsure whether I should be writing this as, frankly, there’s little I hate more than people talking about themselves – especially on a platform should be used to talk about something more interesting. But, it’s been playing on my mind, so bear with me.

This blog is new. It lacks direction, it’s not widely read. That’s fine. These things were acknowledged from the get-go as a necessity. ‘How can a blog know exactly what it’s supposed to say when it sets out?’ was my thinking, and just what I said to my co-poster, Harriet. She nodded and agreed. By letting the blog evolve over time it would find a purpose, right? We don’t need one to start with, no. What we needed was to be writing, in the public domain, telling people what we think and why we think it.

Err, except, I don’t really believe that. What is the point of a blog without a, um, point? A low readership will stay a low readership, and it’s not actually obvious to me how a blog will magically find direction, unless something sets it apart. This begs the question: why did we set this bloody thing up in the first place, then?

O the most basic level, I enjoy talking about science, and I want a career that lets me achieve that (to some greater or lesser extent, at least): to that end, I’m doing the MSc in Science Communication at Imperial. Being on that course makes me feel like I should be doing ‘stuff’. Writing, blogging, film-making, interviewing, web-design, science museum work, event planning; that kind of thing. Great, all that’s good experience. Not many of us blog, but some do. So, to get back to the question: why did we start this blog? To have a voice, I guess; to be noticed, heard, and valued. Maybe even employed.

The truth is, though, that none of our blogs (especially this one) are particularly well read, and I for one don’t have much confidence in actually posting, either. There’re a few reasons for my under confidence:

1. I’m in a state of flux. I’m not incredibly young (I’ve done a degree and PhD), but I’m young enough that my views aren’t set in stone. Especially leaning about the interaction between science, society and the media, I’m currently increasingly unsure what my take on a lot of stories. I don’t want to write something I don’t believe in, so my blog pots get watered down to the extent that they’re no longer interesting. Sometimes, they get so watered down I don’t bother posting them.

2. I’m put off by other blogs. It may sound immature, but plenty of people already blog about science, and have more time to do it than me. They get their stories written and on-line before I have chance, and have often written them much more persuasively than I currently can. It seems like a bit of a waste of my time to cover a topic that’s already been written about, and written about well.

3. I ‘m massively insecure. Let’s get this clear: I know I’m not stupid. I did a degree in engineering and a PhD in medical engineering, and am now doing another MSc. I’m not some arrogant polymath who thinks they can do it all, but I know a fair bit about science and can string a coherent sentence together. But… but… I get nervous writing publicly on topics I don’t know masses about, and I worry about making provocative statements that I might not be able to defend in the future.

4. It’s hard to be creative. Right, this last one sounds like a cop-out but, effectively, my argument is this: I’m doing a full time MSc, which requires me to be reading and writing a lot, and I teach undergrads, too. This leaves me with enough time to write a blog, yes. But to come up with a new, exciting angle, a niche in the market? Not really. It’s not that I can’t think creatively, but in an increasingly overcrowded market, it’s hard to think of an idea – even a thread of coherence – that can set one blog apart from the rest.

What does this mean, then? Essentially, I’ve found the ‘voice’ I was looking. That’s the easy bit: I have a wordpress account, I have a Twitter account. Trouble is, I don’t really have much to say. On Twitter, I listen to what other (older, wiser) sci-commers  talk about; sometimes I ask questions, or challenge them on something, but not often. Essentially, I’m scared to. They all know more than me, what can I add to the debate? Anyone that chooses to argue that this is my own problem is, firstly, correct. Secondly, though, they must also associate with the problem. Everybody, absolutely everybody, gets nervous about entering into debate with people that are better informed and better respected than they, and If you can claim you don’t, you’re either stupid, or an absolute dick.

Basically, then, as far as I can tell, the idea of blogging or micro-blogging is great in theory, but an absolute waste of time if you have nothing constructive to say. At the moment, I feel like my voice is pretty worthless.

We need to talk about death

Terry Pratchett really got me this week.

Maybe I’m just too young, but watching him speak personally and emotionally, yet so pragmatically, about legalising assisted death in the Dimbleby lecture clutched my guts.

As a country we seem pretty confused over what we think about the issue. On the one hand we have a mother committed of murder and cries to protect the vulnerable, on the other we have Debbie Purdy, Dignitas and a mother let off.

Sir Pratchett spoke about watching his father die, his own “slow moving car crash” into Alzheimer’s and how knowing that he could end his life when he wanted would make “every day as precious as a million pounds”. He wants a tribunal system whereby “the facts” could be sorted before death, and people could come away with assurance that friends or relatives which assisted them would not be prosecuted. He was reasonable and practical and very convincing.

The only other time I’ve felt confronted with assisted death like this was in the Science Museum. If you walk into the ‘making the modern world’ gallery from the back of the museum there’s a small display just on the right, tucked next to the frame of the door. It contains one of the few commercial machines made for assisted death. Inside a large suitcase is a computer, attached to this a wire and tube complex, finally ending in a small syringe and needle. You would insert the needle and then the computer would take you through a series of questions. If satisfied with your answers, it would release a deadly dose through the needle.

Introducing the lecture, Sir Pratchett said he was “here to talk about death” and talked about the casual off-handedness with which people avoided the subject. But it looks like talking about death is something we’ll have to do a lot more of.