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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