Homeopathy. Still just water, but now with added genes

Alternative medicine practitioners are proof of evolution. The product changes to suit the times. Obviously, all businesses do that, but some do it responsibly. Others don’t. With that, I give you Homeovitality.

This is wrong on so many levels it’s hard to know where to start. No, it’s not. First: it’s homeopathy. It’s just water, or sugar pills, with any active ingredient diluted beyond existence: a typical homeopathic dilution can be a 1:100 dilution, repeated thirty times. That whooshing sound you heard was the dilution racing past Avogadro’s number. And by the magic of the Law of Infinitesimals, that missing active ingredient gets STRONGER the more dilute it is. Magic indeed.

But Homeovitality exploits another bit of homeopathic magic – the Law of Similars (like cures like), which anyone who’s ever had a hangover will have observed in action if they’ve had another drink when they woke up feeling like death. Unfortunately, all it’s actually done is raise your blood alcohol level to the point where you’re going to have to sober up while awake – a truly grim thought.

In homeopathy, they refer to nosodes. They’re remedies derived from disease substances. So a little bit of cancer cures cancer. Or more specifically, a little bit of ‘carsinosin’ treats cancer. And how do you tell if someone might need carsinosin? Well they might

  • be ambitious
  • want to travel, or
  • love dancing

The filthy, disease-ridden scum.

Homeovitality takes this one step further. Apparently ‘the genetic blueprint contains many genes that promote health as well as many genes that cause disease’. True enough. But ‘the Homeovitality system uses highly diluted DNA molecules with precise sequences to target genes that produce the body’s natural proteins that have been proven to promote health as well as protect against and resolve many diseases’. With water?

Apparently this quackery increases hybrid vigour, because OBVIOUSLY if you ingest foreign genes you become a hybrid, except of course every time you eat something.

You can cure your own cancer with TUMox40  (only 20 pounds 99p) or slow the ageing process with AgeWell for the same price.  And you can become a Homeovitality distributor. Just like Avon, except a cruel fraud.

Or alternatively, you could treat it as the pernicious tripe it is.


Thanks to Phil Kent for the image. Putting the Woo in Woodford.

Wondering when life begins. As you do.

IVF fails more often than it succeeds. After a café conversation (following a communications meeting, rather than any really science-y stuff), I found out one of the reasons for this.

It seems it has to do with DNA methylation. For those seven people even more ignorant of science than I am, here’s the rough definition of what that is.

DNA methylation marks are tremendously important during the development of embryos. As an embryo grows, all the cells generated take on a certain cellular identity and eventually become highly specialised cells in adult life. DNA methylation marks are involved in promoting this cellular identity. Some cells generated in the developing embryo will later produce sperm or eggs. These are called primordial germ cells (PGCs). They take their DNA methylation pattern from the tissue from which they arise — the epiblast. This has to be erased so the next generation has a clean slate, ready for making a new embryo.

On the molecular level, this means DNA methylation marks are reset — or ‘reprogrammed’ in PGCs on a global scale. We don’t know about this process yet. But what we do know is that in IVF concepti, the methylation-reset switch often doesn’t work. At (typically) the 16-cell stage, when the reset switch should have worked, it hasn’t. And these little 16-cell bits of potential (and here I’m going to anthropomorphise like crazy, and unapologetically so) get confused. They don’t know what to do, because the Methylation For Dummies guide isn’t working. So they just … stop. It’s unclear whether they die, but they stop dividing, which for reproductive purposes is the same.

This is interesting in itself, but the bioethical implications are fabulous. For a long time, liberal bioethicists have countered the ‘life begins at conception’ argument with the personhood argument. The most elegant exposition I’ve found came from Norman Ford,  a Catholic priest who learned his embryology from Alan Trounson

Basically, Ford argues that foetal personhood can’t exist until the possibility of twinning has vanished. If a conceptus splits in two, which is Twin A, and which Twin B? Or does A disappear, to be replaced by B and C? Which, if any, is the original person?

But the possibility of concepti just stopping gives an interesting view of the beginnings of life, that buggers up the (I think) mistaken view that life begins at fertilisation. We frankly haven’t the vaguest idea how many fertilisations fail to continue at the methylation reset stage. We only know about the IVF ones because they’re being watched in a lab.

It might take some work to establish, but is there a viable argument that life begins at the methylation reset, rather than at the point when the most athletic sperm breaks the tape and claims its gold medal?

Hypochondria for fun and prophet

I’ve been restrained so far. No more Ms Nice Guy.

Honestly, if I just transcribed my notes, you’d get the appalling idea. But why deny myself the pleasure of commenting? After all, I had to sit through it.

Natasha Vita-More. Savour that name. So much more exciting, so much more meaningful than Nance Clark, isn’t it? And hell, if you’re your own creation, you’re entitled to naming rights.

I wanted to poke her repeatedly with very sharp sticks. For several days.

The words ‘body dysmorphic disorder’ leap to mind. As do ‘narcissist’ and ‘solipsist’.

Natasha is the founder and director of the Transhumanist Arts and Culture World Center, no less. She’s very keen to let us know (repeatedly) that, contrary to her appearance (well-preserved, dieted, trained, painstakingly made-up late 50s, early 60s, at a guess), she’s old. But she’s not at all keen to let us know how old. A cynic might suspect we’d be underwhelmed if we knew.

But why would we? A woman who has packed so much into her life is sure to bear some scars from it. And boy, has she packed.

Not to mention that she appears to have suffered from all known diseases. Oh, that’s unfair. I shouldn’t have said that. She didn’t mention Ebola. Or Morgellons. Although I’m sure if we’d had time she’d have mentioned a dose of that. Ebola may have strained even this audience’s credulity.

Not surprisingly for one so constantly and innovatively ill, she yearns to become the first post-human. She hasn’t yet come up with a design but she’s assembled a team, including Eric Drexler, for whom my respect, tenuous beforehand, has just plummeted.

She visualises a whole-body prosthetic, although not one necessarily located in real time. Excuse me, but W precisely TF does that mean?  Good god, I’m going back to Kant again (Hi Manny!) If something’s located in space then it has to be located in time. If something’s located in time (real time or fake time, whatever) it has to be located in space.  So it Natasha’s full-body prosthetic isn’t located in real time, it’s not located in space and is therefore, like everything else she said, just a load of old cobblers. A consignment of geriatric shoe repairers.

But how about a direct quote?

We are better able to reflect and interrogate ourselves because we have Google. We don’t have to walk to a library and look up a single book – we have it all at our fingertips.

Well, yes. And I saw it on the internet, so it MUST be true. But this anserine apothegm somehow encapsulates Natasha’s thinking as she exposed it to her doting audience. It’s a gallimaufry of half-digested, semi-understood, techno-utopian wish-fulfilment fantasies.

(I was going to edit that last paragraph, but I’ve decided to let it stand: it indicates just how much the odious old baggage winds me up. I normally put a fair bit of effort into writing in simple English, but that sesquipedalian outburst came straight from the soul.)

So what’s Wonderwoman manqué  thinking about? Well, it’s sort of nano-bio-info-cognitive. Or is it wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey?

It’s all to do with ‘life expansion rather than life extension’. No, I don’t know what it means either.

She wants to know what the protocol for post-humanism is. What is species typical? Apparently the aim of human enhancement, outside the boring ‘normalising, therapeutic model’ is to ‘change the terms of death’.

Again, WTF? WTFF? How do you change the terms of an absolute? Absolutes don’t do terms. Absolutes do absolutes.

But let me give you a bit of background on this paragon. You won’t have to endure the same amount that I did. I’m not a sadist.

She’s (another) performance artist – or was, before she became The Legend That Is Natasha. She made a film called Bone Density. It consisted (and I couldn’t make this up) of a series of pictures of her bone scans, showing how much bone density she lost between the ages of 40 and 50. Probably not coming to your local multiplex any time soon. They’d have to have bouncers on the outside chucking people in.

How self-obsessed can you be that you’d make a film of your bone scans?  Should I be filming my blood tests for posterity? Cannes beckons.

Then Her Natasha-ness looked into ways to restore her bone density. Fortunately she was able to, what with her being a ‘body-builder and certified nutritionist’. Two things – if she was both of these, how did she manage to lose the bone density in the first place? And ‘dietician’ is the legally protected word. Any fool can call him or herself a nutritionist. And as for certified …

She did another film, which was unaccountably overlooked for an Academy Award. It was on having her skin resurfaced.  Because she had to have her skin resurfaced, oh yes she did. And do you know why?

She was doing a bio-art project in a rose garden in Texas. And bugs would come and attack the roses, so she had to be out in the sun a lot for several months, shooing them away. From this she got basal cell carcinomas all over her face. She showed us lab slides of them.

Fortunately for her, the audience had checked in its critical faculties at the door. Generally, though, an Australian audience would know that (a) most sun cancers are squamous cell, not basal cell and (b) you do the damage many, many years before they manifest:  not straight after a few months of Texan sunburn. Correlation, Nattie, is not causation.

And then there was the bladder cancer, which was why she was rose-gardening in Texas. And the cataracts. So she has artificial lenses in her eyes. Big whoop. So do lots of people, and very grateful they are for them too. But Our Lady of the Camellias – sorry – Roses isn’t. Her brain doesn’t work very well with her lenses.

You know what I was thinking. I had to stick my fist in my mouth.

What else can she put in herself, she asks. Fist had to stay in mouth.

It will come as no surprise to you that she’s sent off some spit to 23andMe. And she’s making a film about it. Natasha Gobs on a Cotton Bud – this summer’s blockbuster release.

And she wants to be a substrate-independent mind. Whatevs. And she’s going to be frozen when she carks it.

As is the lunatic – and I use the word advisedly – who approached me later. She told me so. To both. She’s a manic depressive. Took her all of, oh, I dunno, 40 seconds to tell me that. It’s a bit like suicide – the ones who threaten never do it. And people who ARE mentally ill tend to try to hide it. She lost interest in talking at me when I mentioned that. Unfortunately not before she told me her late husband had had his head frozen.

I’m not even going to bother telling you about the cryonics love fest. It was several hours of ‘Where can I get it done and how much does it cost?’

But I do want to make one observation. It was like being there at the birth of a new variant of Christianity. It had all the ingredients – the bearded messiah, the sorrowing mother, the promise of life eternal, the devoted acolytes.

I wonder what it’ll be like when they get to the Inquisition.

What’s this I ear?

There was a talk. A long talk. About Norbert Wiener (not to be confused with Nimrod Wiener, the Sydney chiropractor and anti-vaxxer). Norbert was the father of cybernetics, and sounds to have been a thoroughly brilliant, albeit rather strange and obnoxious man. But it was a L-O-N-G talk, from a distinctly unengaging speaker. I managed to take in a bit of it, but I’m embarrassed to admit that after the first 27 hours my mind did start to wander.

Then there was a panel discussion. About Norbert. Or Norbie, as I like to call him these days: I feel I know him so well now.  I got a few things out of it. A nice quote from Norbie:

In the field of science it is perilous to run counter to the accepted table of precedence. On no account is it permissible to mention living beings and machines in the same breath.

Admittedly this probably sounds a little overblown in a time when pacemakers are unremarkable, but you can see it might have been the case in the 40s and 50s. And, to be fair, many people do seem to find Kevin Warwick a bit strange or alarming.

And I was delighted to discover that Allende’s Chile was the only government ever to be set up on cybernetic principles. Which may explain the subsequent coup.

But I was starting to have out-of-body experiences by this time, largely because of one of the other speakers on the panel. I’ll get to her later. Then I’ll mop the venom off the keyboard.

Another panel member was Stelarc. I’m going to mesh his panel performance and his subsequent talk together, because you can have too much of a good thing. And I’m going to be fair to him: he doesn’t seek to set himself up as a scientist – he’s a conceptual artist and should be judged as such. Although when he started carrying on about Kant and Nietzsche I thought I might have some grounds for being snitty, but, what the hell, it’s just the kind of pop-philosophical gloss conceptual art types use to add some intellectual je ne sais quoi to their work. So if someone wants to use Kant to rationalise suspending himself by hooks through his skin, or growing a third ear on his arm, let him. No horses are getting frightened by it.

I’d actually come to this conference because the brochure made much of the themes of biotechnology and nanotechnology. The level of ignorance was profound. I saw no indication that any of the punters – maybe a couple of the cryonics experts, but none of the plebs – knew anything at all about what they are. The impression I got was that these are just science-y buzzwords for cool sci-fi stuff. But Stelarc actually managed to mention nano – with the deathless (pun intended) observation that ‘the micro or nano scale of new technology means the body becomes the host and the landscape for its machinery’. And the next act was all about biotech.

I’m not even going to try to be polite about this one. I don’t hang myself from the ceiling (not often anyway). I don’t grow extra body parts as a hobby. But I do write a bit, and I reckon that gives me the right to criticize another’s writing. We had a reading from a new novel.

Not just any novel. A verse novel. A blank verse novel. A blank verse time-shifting dystopian novel about genetic manipulation. Obviously you will feel the horror. And it wasn’t improved by the fact that the author was triumphantly, radiantly ignorant of the actual science.

A few highlights will suffice. More than suffice.

The book alternates between 2050 Melbourne and 2010 Melbourne. It’s supposed to be about the impact of science and technology on our daily lives. By 2050, we have ‘GM cloned whales’. Yep. GM, cloned. They’re different things, love. And it had to be whales.

There are carbon counters mounted on every wall. The sea level has risen about 200 feet. So quickly? The IPCC will be stunned. People have floral goldfish to match their couches. The water is ‘full of transgenics’ following a ‘leak from a genetics lab’. There are fish sprouting tomato leaves, and trout with human ears.  Between this and Stelarc, I was getting a bit eared-out.

Clearly biotech’s come on a bit in 38 years. And the woman appears to have an obsession with aquatic creatures.

Still, when she set out her stall afterwards, the faithful were keen to buy a copy. The faithful had self-selected: they would, in every sense, buy anything.

De Grey Havens

Aubrey de Grey – what to say? Messianic, yes. Exuberant – for want of a better word – facial hair. A ponytail. Either an extreme ectomorph or seeking eternal life through good old calorie restriction. Or he might forget to eat. Bloody skinny anyway.

At least he talked about stuff that was recognisably science. I certainly don’t know enough about the subject to tell if it was good science, or even plausible science, but at least it was something other than motherhood statements and pious hope.

Not that it would have mattered anyway. This wasn’t a science-y audience. This was a Lourdes audience. 

A few quick points: he’s looking at telomeres, transgenic microbial hydrolases, and using the techniques of bioremediation, hoping to use bacteria to break down the foam cells he believes are implicated in call ageing and death.

I have to say that this geronto-utopian vision leaves an awful lot of practical questions unanswered. Or even more amusingly, glossed lightly and carelessly over.

This vastly extended lifespan will be available to everybody. Obviously. Leave it to one side that for someone from say, Chad, a standard Western lifespan would look to be near enough to eternal life as to be effectively indistinguishable. Now far be it from me to suggest that perhaps we might like to solve that problem before we start indulging our over-privileged selves with an extra 920 years or so of life. I know, I know. Picky of me.

But such things are as nothing to the geronto-philes. The whole political economy of the world – not to mention its stock of resources –  will just obligingly change so that they can live to be 1000 while remaining nice people with principles. Easy as.

Dear god, I didn’t realise how much of this I’d saved to share with the sane. But I really DO have to cut the rant short and go to bed. Hang around if you’re perverse. De Grey was the sanest bit of a mad weekend. The real lunacy is to come.

Strung up by Struldbrugs

I knew it was going to be bad pretty much as soon as I got into the cab. If you’re picking up a middle-aged woman, from the Computer Science building at a major university, do you assume she wants to talk about the minutiae of team selection for the weekend’s football? I know a bit about football: there are three sorts – footbrawl, thugby and Australian Fools. Unfortunately, I’m also polite. On my day, anyway. It was a very long short trip.
Followed by an uneventful flight in an awful seat. Somehow I no longer find silently muttering ‘Qantas never crashes, Qantas never crashes’ to myself all that reassuring. And I do have the urge to save the in-flight nibbles as evidence for when someone dies of food-poisoning.
The Melbourne cabbie had no interest in banging on about sport. He was actually a pleasure to talk to – I got a short history of El Salvadoran politics and the football war, which I now know to be a gross over-simplification of a far more complex event. There should be more cabbies like him. Ride and learn. It has a nice ring to it.
Then the hotel. Oh, the hotel. I arrived at ten past nine. Restaurant closes at nine. As does room service. Nowhere nearby to eat. Glumly ordered a revolting pizza delivery. Then sat back and listened to the trains passing, because the bloody place backs onto the rail line. Melbourne trains go all night. I live in a country village, where a kangaroo farting is considered a breach of the peace.
Up, thoroughly un-rested, the next morning and off to the Humanity Plus event. I arrived early – they were still setting up. Well, setting up might be too strong a term. There wasn’t a lot to do – the whole thing, ironically given the subject matter, was resolutely low-tech. But I did notice the star turn – Aubrey de Grey – helping to lump the banners around.
I’ve always been suspicious of de Grey – he appears far too messianic for my liking – and I was torn about whether I should regard this as basic decency or as the act of a man desperate to get out his (somewhat alarming) message. I opted for the latter, but as the hours wore on I came to a different, third, conclusion.
It was also hard not to notice the number of shuffling dotards there to learn about living forever or dying in the attempt. I suppose there are a lot of people who’ll grasp the flimsiest of straws when death is staring them in the face. One of them gave a constant running commentary – to no-one in particular – about what he was doing as he was doing it. I couldn’t help but think he was trying to keep his mind on the task at hand, for fear of forgetting what it was.
The atmosphere was alarmingly respectful towards the whole living forever thing. Really quite extraordinarily uncritical. I got the distinct impression that if I uttered a sceptical comment, I’d be strung up by Struldbrugs. Slowly, of course.
That impression was confirmed by the crusty old hippie who invaded my personal space and announced – about 20 seconds into the unwelcome conversation – that nanotechnology could be used for weapons. Biting down the urge to say ‘No shit Sherlock. So could your socks’, I countered with affordable clean water supplies for third world countries. That confused him, and he left. Thank Cthulu.
And away we go. With the wi-fi not yet working. First up was a futurist (and Reiki practitioner, which chilled my bones to the marrow), who gave us a rousing – and almost totally content-free – session called Humanity+ – or -?
We were asked to give a word to describe the planet. All the usual suspects were trotted out. ‘Rocky’ wasn’t one of them. Neither was ‘helio-orbital’. No, this was pure motherhood. Look, I’m all for a rant about excess consumption. I buy my clothes from Vinnies, get my shoes repaired, refuse to use tissues or drink bottled water and I still own a turntable. But when I hear stuff like ‘We’ve turned the planet into a brand’ I get a tad impatient. It’s emotive language, it’s factually wrong and it’s just lazy.
From there we range to David Beckham’s gold iPhone. And obesity is a problem. Apparently we consume stuff and there are poor people. Thank you. I’d hitherto failed to notice that. Then we got asked how many of us have young children. Given the age of the audience, he’d have been better asking how many had young great-grandchildren. No matter, a little thing like that wasn’t going to deter him. He contrasted our precious little poppets (probably in their 60s by now, but …) with kids in developing countries, announcing ‘It’s illegal, let alone immoral, to let these children starve’.
No. It’s certainly immoral. But it is NOT illegal for me, or you, to let them starve. The world’s a shocking poor place, and we have a moral duty to look out for others, but this can’t be translated into a legal duty. It’s absurd.
No surprises, we get onto population control. At this stage the sermonising is becoming so blatant that I start to imagine I hear the faint tones of an organ and a chorus of Shall We Gather at the River. We are told we live on a finite planet. Astonishing. Then he does it – he refers to Planet Earth. I honestly don’t know why this particular locution shits me so much, but I feel the urge to poke out the eyes of anyone who utters it.
Next, we get to do a little role-play, called Two Suspects in a Crime. Golly Moses, it’s the Prisoners’ Dilemma, but I suppose that wasn’t a catchy-enough title. He tells us this is all about trust. I had assumed (and I admit I may be wrong) that it was more about enlightened self-interest forcing actors to trust that others also acted from a similar motive.
Apparently we all have to be open, honest and transparent to create a better world. Does your bum look big in that? Gargantuan. Just go and hide yourself away, you look awful.
I always love it when the intolerant prescriptivism of this sort of speech pokes its ugly little head out. In this case the head belongs to ‘There should be no such product as Coke with the planet in the state it’s in’. So there. I haven’t had a Coke since I was 17, and I can’t say I’ve missed it, but this still strikes me as maybe the tiniest bit rhetorically overblown.
You may be getting the impression this address lurched wildly around from non sequitur to irrelevance. You’re right. Next we had a show of hands about how many of us wanted to live beyond 100. An awful lot of them. Honestly, wouldn’t you get bored?
So where are we going to put these people? A good question, at last. We’re not going to get many people into space to found new worlds. Well, that’s true. So getting into space will only benefit the rich and powerful. I sort of see where he’s going with this reasoning, but frankly, I don’t think it’s worth making the point. And he can’t see direct control of gravity happening any time soon. Nor indeed can I, but I don’t think that’s a reason not to try it. He seems to.
So, the focuses for the future, in a breathtaking (not in a good way) logical leap are:

  • Electric power not derived from fossil fuels
  • Cheap modular technology
  • Local, seasonal, organic, sustainable, preservative-free food (We have a Buzzword Bingo winner)
  • Recycling
  • Quality, energy-efficient medium cost housing without deforestation

None of these are objectionable. They’re even desirable. It’s just the muddled logic that got him there that offends me.
Should I go into the questions from the audience? No. They were too depressing. There was one who announced that he has ‘no doubt’ there are super-viruses waiting to be used by a country wanting to protect its own food supply. I love apocalypticists and millenarians. But not enough to take them seriously.
Here endeth the first session. Back with more tomorrow.

Dear Sir David

Dear Sir David

I know you don’t like being called a national treasure. Neither you should – you’re an international treasure.

Seriously, you are. How much influence can a superb teacher have? And what if that teacher can reach kids all over the world, the way you did? You’ve inspired a lot of future scientists, but you’ve had an effect on many more who didn’t go on to a career in science.

I didn’t – maths defeated me. But damn it, I WANTED to. Instead, I did philosophy of science (no maths there) and ended up as a science communicator. So I got there in a way.

But about the effect your programs and books and everything else had, even on people who weren’t scientifically-inclined. You showed us wonder – the little worlds in ponds, the life that goes on at the small scale, that most of us never give a moment’s thought to. You showed us horror – I’ll never forget the footage of the killer whales playing Frisbee with the seal pup, or of the slowly-dying buffalo shadowed by the waiting Komodo dragons.  But then again, I’ll never forget the famous gorilla footage either. That was purely joyful. You showed us the natural world in all its gore and glory.

But most importantly, you showed us how to LOOK. That’s really important: it may be the greatest of all your achievements. Just staying still and looking at what’s around you – really looking – is a wonderful thing to learn.

I live in the country, so I get the opportunity to see a bit of wildlife, particularly after I turn off the highway. Unfortunately, most of it’s dead beside the road – not everybody bothers to look, in any sense of the word. But sometimes, you get an exquisite moment. One night, I was driving down the back road at about 3am. There was a group of wombats – unusual enough, they’re not real sociable – milling around on the road. I suppose it would have been twenty minutes before they decided to move out of the way. It was wonderful. They were totally oblivious to the car’s lights, just carrying on with wombatty things – a bit of butting heads against each other’s sides, bit of nuzzling, lots of scratching. I was so close I could hear their claws clicking on the tarmac, and it was the most extraordinary privilege to be allowed to eavesdrop on their lives, even briefly.

Or watching a group of wood ducks eating the maggots growing in some road kill. Incredible stuff, and I don’t know if I’d have been as entranced – or even sanguine about it – if I hadn’t learned the incredible lesson of just watching a part of the world that isn’t like one’s own day to day life.

I’d like to thank you, too, for your conservation work, for your stance on climate change, and your opposition to teaching creationism in schools.

But there’s one other thank you. I’d like to say thanks on behalf of my grandfather. He had a hard-scrabble life, working at whatever jobs he could get. And he’d only gone to school for a year. It’s pretty hard to educate yourself when you can barely read to start with and you’re working all the hours you can to support your wife and kids. He was enraptured by your programs. When Life on Earth and its successors came on, he concentrated on the TV with all his might. Nobody was allowed to talk – he was a bit deaf and he didn’t want to miss a word. (I did wish at those times that you would speak just a little louder.) You made an old man who wanted to learn but had never had the chance very happy. And for that, I can’t thank you enough.


Virginia Tressider


Inspiring Australia: some instructive silliness

A workshop in which we delve into the dark arts of publicity

So when we’re trying to publicise a scientific story, what do we need to ask? How about

  • What’s the story?
  • Why am I telling it?
  • Who is the audience?
  • Why are they interested?
  • What tools do I have to tell the story with?
  • How am I going to use them?

And remember, to get noticed, you don’t need a good story. There are plenty of good stories. You need a great one.

Sometimes, you’re going to have to fight your scientists to get to tell the story in a way that will get it noticed. Scientists can tend to want to put everything in. Sometimes you need to be the equivalent of the bouncer in a nightclub.

And you’re going to have to remember that many people’s knowledge of science (and I use the word ‘knowledge’ unbelievably loosely) comes from movies. There’s actually a group called Hollywood Science(?) which aims to keep the violations of the laws of physics down to one per scene. No doubt somewhere out there there’s an avid fan of Avatar (probably the second worst movie ever made, and don’t even think of asking what the worst one was) who thinks there’s a mineral called Unobtanium (lazy scriptwriting there, but who needs a script when you’ve got CGI and cheesy twinkling trees?

So how are we going to write a terrific science story? Well, in this workshop, we did it competitively. Here are the scoring criteria.

  • Clear definition of topic and audience. What is the science being communicated, and to whom?
  • Clarity of presentation for target audience
  • Accuracy of science
  • Level of attention-getting or holding
  • Entertainment factor (amusing, quirky, original dramatic)
  • Extra points for appealing to an audeince who have recently lost a loved one
  • Triple points for appealing directly to the dearly departed

One team (my team, the winning team, gloat, gloat) went for the tear jerker. We appeared on Oprah, targetting the 25-40 female audience who are worried about nukes. We gave them little Timmy, only five years old, and his mother. Timmy’s brain tumour wasn’t diagnosed until a brain scan using molybdenum99 revealed an operable, but hitherto hidden tumour. The mother spoke about how Timmy would be dead if it weren’t for radio isotopes. And as he wrapped his little arms around her neck (Timmy is actually a doctoral student from JCU, so there was a certain supension of disbelief), and piped ‘I love you Mummy’, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

Another group targeted the older members of the community, exhorting them to reduce their postumous carbon footprint using the LifeGem Process and be compressed into a diamond. They made their pitch through funeral directors and aged care homes. I LOVE black humour.

A third gave us the sushi savior net, which fools opportunistic whales into thinking fish enshrouded in them are tangles in the net. (Don’t snicker, it exists). A nicely targetted appeal to environmentalists, whale lovers and, well, tuna.

What we learned:

  • Keep it short
  • Keep it tight
  • Keep it until you’ve got something really interesting to say. A constant barrage of news releases will get you put in the ‘ignore’ pile.
  • Follow up with a phone call.
  • Respect the journalists’ deadlines. You can’t say ‘I’ll get back to you in an hour’ when the deadline’s 10 minutes away.

And that it’s really, REALLY hard to interest dead people in anything.

Inspiring Australia on sharing Indigenous knowledge

Western science and Indigenous knowledge can be complementary, and used properly and sensitively can augment and improve each other.  Take for example the case of an old man in a community who knows all about a particular kind of fish. It’s part of his skin knowledge, part of his own story. And say there’s a Western researcher looking at that fish, maybe for conservation purposes. The Indigenous knowledge can hugely help the Western scientist.

And this kind of cooperation is a win-win. The research gets done quick smart and the fish gets saved.

But this isn’t always the way things work. Indigenous knowledge can get buried in the jargon, the source can be overlooked or dis-valued. Ideally, non-Indigenous academics should acknowledge where knowledge came from. Principles of reciprocity and respect should obtain.

Some communities have formalised this. They have written research and IP policies and an ethics process.  IP clauses are written into research agreements.

Traditional medicine is a field which shows tremendous potential for drug discovery, but which is also fraught with issues of recognition and respect. While communities accept that specific recognition may be lost along the way, and acknowledgement that the ‘discovery’ is drawn from Indigenous culture and intellectual property is of fundamental importance.

The Indigenous perspective is that we need to look at the world holistically, and to connect holistic Indigenous knowledge with Western science.

A plant from the Fitzroy River in Queensland has long been a subject of Western scientific study, and one of its properties has been identified. Indigenous knowledge has identified this plant as being an antibiotic, an antiseptic and an analgesic some 30 times as powerful as morphine. More on this tomorrow.

Teaching science in Indigenous communities presents some problems if it’s done in the conventional manner. But there are now attempts to embed Indigenous perspectives across the curriculum. To look at localised stories and unpack the science behind it. For example, to explain the science behind the observation that if there are dragonflies on the front beach  that means there’s good squidding on the back beach. And don’t ask me. I’m buggered if I know why.

Butt defining yourself as a scientist creates a barrier between you and an Indigenous community – it’s seen as an unattainable goal. We need to ‘flatten science out’ , and impress on kids that we LIVE in science.  (Nicely put, don’t you think? It’s a quote. Wish I’d thought of it.)

Wouldn’t it be good to create a database of communities who want Western science to come and work with them to share knowledge?

Engagement with Indigenous people needs a truthful approach. This is fundamental to developing a relationship, and it energises engagement with Indigenous science.

Inspiring Australia Day One (part two)

In which the reader will learn of divers observations by the feline Mr Robin Williams and a panel of experts

A survey in the late 80s on kids going into science was dubbed the ‘Nerds and Losers’ survey, this being the general perception of science-y type kids. A  provocative statement – ‘The Australian public isn’t engaged with science. Kids are stampeding away from studying science at school’.

But perhaps it’s not that simple. Perhaps the public is engaged, they just don’t know it. It’s a nice thought. It would be good if it were true. But one can’t help but think that an awful lot of people are engaged with science the way they’re engaged with gravity – it influences every part of their lives, but they don’t think about it or want to know about it.

Part of the reason for the putative disengagement might be that teachers of young kids lack confidence in teaching science by doing. But it’s quite remakable how engrossed they can become if a confident explainer gets them involved with building bridges with toothpicks and marshmallows. Yep. I can see that. I can see even better how involved they could get with a bottle of Coke and a pack of Mentos, but somehow I suspect that one will ALWAYS be off the curriculum.

More people claim to be interested in science than in sport, but their involvement with science tends to be about what concerns them personally.

Survey respondents say they’re proud of Australian scientists, and I hope it’s true, but somehow I find this worrying. Is the pride in local scientists another manifestation of the vulgar jingoism that sees the Australian flag draped around some beer-soaked bogan on Australia Day, before he repairs, staggering, to a ute bearing the immortal phrase ‘Fuck off, we’re full’? Oh god I hope not. I really, really hope not.

A slightly depressing bit of news. Students easily recognise pictures of Newton and Galileo, but show them a picture of Elizabeth Blackburn, or even the sainted Frank Fenner and they draw a blank. Maybe scientists are only cool when they’re history.

An interesting observation relayed from an Ockam’s Razor program with a guy from Deloittes – ‘the top business people of the future need training in science, because of complexity theory, because of chaos, because, above all, of the scientific method’. Big ups to the Deloittes guy. Dear god, I’m praising an accountant. Had to happen I suppose.

And a good analogy. ‘You need to look at science (specifically climate science  in this case) as being like the stockmarket. There are frequent fluctuations, but if you take a long view, it’s always possible to discern a long-term trend.

Another observation of some interest. People are more confident searching for information now, and find it easier to do, but they don’t have the tools to interpret the information they get.

A thought for getting kids interested in learning about science, from my own weary brain. ‘You know it’s right to question authority. Here are the tools to learn what and how to question’. No? Maybe just for the even nerdier losers (as that survey would have it) who end up doing philosophy?