Review | The Tale of the Duelling Neurosurgeons- Sam Kean

I’m revisiting my pop-science book collection, partly to get back into a habit of reading and partly to look at the range of styles available in popular science writing. First on my list is Sam Kean’s The Tale of the Duelling Neurosurgeons.

Duelling Neurosurgeons initally surprised me by not opening with duels or with neurosurgery. Instead, it dives into the world of sleep paralysis, an experience often compared to possession or even alien abduction.

Once the sleep paralysis scene is set, Kean then pulls the rug out from under it by explaining how the near-supernatural experience is caused solely by physical circuits and responses. This unorthodox opening demonstrates his message- that small physical brain events can produce irrational, unexpected, and even spiritual/religious-seeming changes – in an accessible way which makes the idea easier to grasp.

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This week I went to my first academic conference, OER17, to present my MSc research.

Having never been before, I wasn’t sure what to expect- I’d only been told “this is a bunch of people who want to change the world”. That didn’t help me prepare, but it did sound interesting.

After attending, I can fairly confidently say that expression was not hyperbole – everyone was incredibly motivated about their projects, and equally supportive of each others’ projects. While presentations aren’t a comfortable experience for me,  the experience was valuable: I’m glad I was encouraged to apply in the first place, and that I listened.

Now, to process the ideas I learned about over the last two days.

For anyone who is curious about what I did, a link to my presentation slides is above. I’ve also put the questionnaire and interview questions I created onto my Figshare account under a Creative Commons License, so that people can freely adapt and reuse them for similar projects.

A Sci-Comm Renaissance?

News from the last three weeks has been bad, to say the least. Both Britain and America have seemingly been bent on destruction and bridge-burning. Yet despite being anxious about just what will happen next, I’m also a little bit curious as well.

One of the few good parts about the previous three weeks is how people have often responded to protect and support others. Social networks have shared resources for contacting politicians, lawyers and advocates, and advice on how best to do so. Widespread protests and calls for mobilisation have made some meaningful changes, called attention to the wrongs which would have remained away from the spotlights, and delayed political decisions. People aren’t taking the changes as quietly as either Trump and co. or May and co. had wanted. And I hope this atmosphere of fighting back will continue, and lead to bigger changes.

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Review | Fun Science – Charlie McDonnell

I’ve recently finished Fun Science by Charlie McDonnell, and after reading it I’m surprisingly impressed both by the book itself and its potential value for science communication.

Firstly, some context. Charlie McDonnell is a filmmaker/musician/ vlogger/presenter… and now author. Last month he released Fun Science (the book), inspired by his 2011 YouTube series of the same name. Fun Science (the show) has also returned,and covers topics included in the book. (A playlist of all of the YouTube episodes is below).

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Agenda-setting theory and the autism-vaccine controversy.

This article is focusing on the legacy of the controversy, so for more information about what happened in Andrew Wakefield’s experiment, have a look in text-form here, or comic-form here.

Of all the pesudoscience in all the world, why did this case stay? What about this story has let it live as many people’s truth for almost 20 years, when finding out what happened takes little more than an online search?

There are a few possible answers: celebrity backing, scientists not effectively dispelling inaccuracies, or just people hearing the message so many times that it gains a veneer of truth. All of these have some merit, and all are involved.

But there are two other ideas I want to throw into the pile as well, the first being;

What if psychological biases influence us away from fully rejecting Wakefield’s story, despite the facts?

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The Great Facebook Debate

And by this, I am of course referring to the controversial experimental results published this week that show Facebook’s ability to induce emotions in people.

Although the study was actually carried out 2 years ago (January 11th-18th, 2012), it was approved in March 2014, and first published at the end of June 2014. Since the first news stories about it broke last week, legal institutions such as the UK Information Commissioners Office, and the US National Academy of Sciences, are investigating whether the experiment should have been approved.

However, the National Academy of Science are the people who published the paper in the first place- this goes beyond locking the stable door after the horse has bolted, and more resembles investigating the door for possible structural problems after the horse has already caused property damage.

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Psychopharmacology: The Brand-Name Debate

One of my modules this year is Psychopharmacology- the study of drugs and how they affect people. One topic I often come across when researching drugs and medicines, which is often ill-explained, is what “generic drugs” are and whether generic drugs are ineffective, or different from brand-name medications.

When medicines are created,they are usually patented  to one person or company, who become the only people who can make that medication. After a period of time, often 15 years, the active ingredient of that medicine (the medicinal molecule) goes off-patent, so can now be developed by other people. (This is similar to how music and books go out of copyright, and into the public domain).

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