Monthly Archives: October 2011

Skeptics in the Pub

Science is cool. This is evident from the way Skeptics in the Pub’s Sid Rodrigues and guests Jenny Rohn (Experimental Heart, The Honest Look), Manjit Kumar (Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality) and Michael Brooks (13 Things That Don”t Make Sense) got one of the biggest crowds of the Festival…

L-R: Manjit Kumar, Michael Brooks, Jenny Rohn and Sid Rodrigues

Why become a science writer? Michael Brooks says he had a short attention span – more interested in friends’ lab work than his own.

Brooks also felt out of place in research+academia (and had a ‘challenging’ supervisor relationship) so decided to try out science writing.

Manjit Kumar started out as a philosopher then moved on to physics. He wanted to combine both interests and defend science against naysayers

Jenny Rohn is a practising scientist (her childhood ambition) as well as a novelist.

Inspired by Cantor’s Dilemma, she founded to promote novels about scientists: after years of searching, only found 120!

Surprised by scarcity of fiction about scientists despite their grand goals and interesting personalities, Rohn decided to write her own.

Hollywood focuses on disaster potential of science; Panel thinks it’s natural given their style of story-telling – goes back to Frankenstein

Brooks thinks comedians (eg @DaraOBriain @MrChrisAddison)’re making science cool; Kumar unsure scientists are cool too, @profbriancox aside!

Brooks argues Climate-gate not all bad. It showed the humanity of scientists, expressing passion and anger which people actually warm to.

Rohn: fiction distills society’s anxieties and paints a picture of them – e.g. recently we’re seeing more climate disaster stories.

Kumar’s book Quantum is driven by the human stories of scientists who made discoveries: inspired by a 1927 photo, a “Who’s Who of science”.

Brooks: Human stories behind ‘discoveries’ which fail are fascinating, e.g. people who thought they discovered cold fusion.

Double standard in society: don’t mind artists and musicians taking drugs, but idea of scientists doing same to boost creativity is taboo.

Rohn’s The Honest Look inspired by a job she took in a company developing ‘magic’ cancer drug. What if a newcomer realised they were wrong?

Host tells anecdote: scientist distracted from giving presentation by witnessing colleague next door spilling acid on himself and stripping!

Discussion of bad science. Brooks: Science advocates shouldn’t just mock homeopathy users or the religious. Lacks understanding of benefits.

Rohn frustrated when people don’t believe basic, proven biological principles, e.g. detox fans who forget humans have livers for a reason!

Audience Q about how to visualise quantum mechanics. Kumar: follow the maths and *don’t* visualise concepts, as it can be deceptive.

Kumar: however, teachers lie to students all the time – their models (e.g. solar atom model) grow in complexity as understanding increases.

Audience Q: does Lablit include sci-fi? Rohn: No, that’s popular enough without extra publicity. Want books based in real science.

Rohn: fiction is a good medium for expressing emotions inherent in science: many arguments, and much of science is “heart-breaking failure”.


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Fiona Rule’s illustrated talk on London’s docklands

This is how the history talk went down – Fiona Rule‘s written a book about the history of the docklands and came armed with pictures…

Tonight’s talk is by Fiona Rule, who’s written a book called London’s Docklands: A History of the Lost Quarter.

When constructed in 1880, the Royal Albert was the largest dock in the world – over a mile long

Fiona’s interest in Docklands began when a colleague told her with passion about the old docks where his dad had worked

Her colleague had expected to work in docks but his prescient dad arranged printing apprenticeship saying there was “no future” in the docks

Fiona contrasts pic of docks in use with view now from ExCeL over Royal Victoria dock, of disused factory & luxury flats. No future indeed!

London’s original Roman docks are now buried under Cannon Street station.

Elizabeth I opened docks along Thames, w/different quays for different products. Port of London contributed to city’s reputation worldwide.

Docks were built at Tilbury to ease congestion in Thames. Wharves & docks of Port of London occupied huge areas & employed lots of E London.

In the end, though, it was the advent of huge container ships that spelt the end of the Port of London – they were simply too big for it.

Fiona is now telling the story of the docklands industrial action of the late nineteenth century, over humiliating pay and work practices.

In summer 1889, walk-out turned into Port-wide strike, with dock-workers demanding improved conditions. Owners said demands’d ruin the docks

By Sept, strike fund was running low and dockers were worried about carrying on; owners convinced if they acquiesced, more strikes’d follow.

In the end, worldwide solidarity won the day, as donations poured in from Australia’s dockers, inspired by the story of the London strike

Dockers saw they could now keep strike up indefinitely, so the employers relented and the dockers returned to work with improved conditions.

Fiona describes dockers’ action as a watershed moment in industrial relations, as both owners & workers realised collective power of latter.

Answering a Q from floor, Fiona describes how dockers would get tip-offs about which pubs to buy people drinks in to get selected for work!

There was quite a drinking culture in the docks, she adds, which explains why there are (or were) many large pubs in the area

And with that, in the spirit of the old docks, everyone’s off to the pub (perhaps) after another great talk; thanks very much to Fiona Rule!

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