Better representation of science on television?

The following frame appears in an episode of Partners in Crime, a BBC adaptation of the Agatha Christie novel The Secret Adversary.

Partners in Crime, BBC One, 2015.

Despite being a programme that is very upper-middle-class on everything else (setting, plot, characters), I find this representation of a scientist (okay, wartime bomb expert turned “cool” science teacher*) far more accurate than the usual choice of:

  • “mad scientist” whose inventions are fantasmagorical but weirdly work, though with one crucial flaw that will be exploited by the protagonist(s) and prove the villain’s ultimate undoing; or
  • scientist in support of the protagonist(s), who is somehow an expert neuro-surgeon AND particle physicist and an all-around genius with a slight whiff of deus ex machina about them when the heroes are stuck in a crisis.

The line of dialogue on screen is true of ongoing scientific research, and the fact that *SPOILER* we never really find out whether or not this thing really worked in the end – Tommy and Tuppence get thwarted during the chase – is (a shame but) quite the more realistic than “happily ever after”.

That will do for now. I have to tend to other work that is driving me mildly insane.

*This is the official character bio on the programme website:

“He lost one of his hands during his work in WWII in the bomb disposal unit, but has since contrived his own mechanical replacement. It was during his recovery in hospital that he first befriended Tommy.

Friendly, quirky and an absolute nut for all things scientific, Albert becomes Tommy and Tuppence’s perfect ally whenever they encounter anything that requires more technical knowledge than they possess. Having found himself slightly side-lined by his disability, Albert finds excitement and redemption in becoming involved in Tommy and Tuppence’s adventures.”

The (relative) thanklessness of working on the internet

Warning: this is a stream-of-consciousness (more so than usual) sort of entry.

Not long ago I was on a conference panel called “meet the editors”. All of the other panellists were (are) in charge of a printed publication, peer-reviewed or not, and I was there in my capacity as a web editor. In advance of our editors’ roundtable, I had asked some colleagues and my closest contemporary on the panel whether or not there would be a point in my presence at the event, as I imagined any questions the audience would have are likely to be directed at the journal and magazine editors. You may call this a case of sour grapes, but I considered it merely a statement to be acknowledged. As a matter of fact, I was right. Of course, I did sit on the panel in order to discuss the newly revamped website of which I am in care, what content we are working on, and to make some bad jokes along the lines of “please don’t use the contact-us form to ask me if I can tell you more about a 16th century ship called [name]; I always aim to help, but in these cases, I unfortunately, really cannot.”

In academia, as much as we are assimilating into the digital world, and in some cases even questioning the usefulness of our paper journals when most of them are digitised anyway, the printed form of publication still feels like a validation to strive for. Online presence certainly counts in terms of outreach, but it is often seen as the less formal cousin; albeit the sort of cousin that gets away with being snarky and sarcastic about any given topic. (Nonetheless: Hurray for outreach!) Having a regular, paid spot at online outpost, writing about your field of interest is a step further up the ladder, but nothing will beat a hard-copy journal with your name on the contents page.

Does the reasoning for this lie in the fact that “anybody” – provided they have internet access – can self-publish on the internet, or because a lot of content can be obtained for “free” on the internet, and therefore must be of sub-par quality compared to paid-for material? The matter of fact is that a lot of people spend a lot of time producing content for the internet, whether it is their job, or whether they receive compensation for their efforts. I am a consumer of a healthy number of lifestyle blogs, fan-works (art, fiction, etc.), academic columns, and news-channels of the internet; some of these creators have grown from creating their content out of goodwill to turning their channels into one of their main occupations. You can be a blogger or a youtuber for a living, it’s no different from being a writer and a producer (except you might have to work MORE), yet some of these creators still get asked – especially by members of the older generation – “what kind of a job is that?”

And if you are a fandom member producing content for other fans, the comment above this picture is not an uncommon thing to hear.

If you think about it, asking your friends on facebook if their university has access to a particular journal paper you can’t get hold of on your own system is essentially crowdsourcing one job (fine – one task) for a librarian, yet the action of asking across the internet feels less formal than if you actually had needed to approach a librarian or records officer to do the same job. (It probably also works out much faster; I never said there weren’t any benefits.) So the internet makes things informal.

*cough*signing up to buy from online shops or even to comment on popular websites takes forEVER*cough*

The informality is a double-edged sword. For one, copyrights are often breached. Theft happens in the world of fandoms, but here there are vigilantes who report stolen work, and maintain the sense of community. Unfortunately, this sort of behaviour is not uncommonly also exhibited by large websites towards individual producers, who in turn are protected only be relatively weak creative commons licences and cannot take proper action against plagiarism.

On the other hand, the informality allows mass-engagement. The recent discussions surrounding Jeremy Hunt and the NHS have made the rounds online, and where social-media users are often referred to as a “mob”, the fact that healthcare professionals are able to express their thoughts on the matter and engage the public in this debate can mobilise greater action on the cause.

However, sometimes the informality is just that – informal. If it isn’t an official statement on paper with a proper letterhead and a billion signatures, people won’t take it seriously.

So where does that leave us?

  • If you make things for fun online, even though your creations are appreciated by the like-minded, you have “too much time on your hands”.
  • If you are paid to do things on the internet, it’s not as valid as doing things “IRL”. (In real life, to the Luddites.)
  • If you are a social activist on the internet, you are part of a mob that gets over-excited for very little, under the protection of your relative anonymity.

So far, so negative. With that being said, online is certainly fertile soil for people to practice their art and become even better at writing/painting/producing/editing/entertaining. And nothing is going to stop people from being creative, because frankly, “blogger” and “youtuber” have made it as legitimate jobs despite all the suspicion.

So I’m at this panel, nodding along to my seniors answering questions about getting published, scribbling notes for my own benefit, and gradually come around to a question rather than a conclusion: while web-editing is providing me a list of professional experiences, how can I use “my” platform, a website for a learned society and all its media channels, to lift my fellow academics’ non-academic skills?

Arguing with people on the internetz

Here’s a thing that turned up in my tumblr feed:

tumblr convo

This is my would-be response:

Another point is that public engagement of STEM is very much a thing that is happening. Dissemination is important to the continuation of research, especially if you are state-funded, because you have to prove what your work can do for society. One way that this has been done with a decent amount of success (judging from feedback) is introducing scientists and their lives alongside the science, as this makes them and their work seem more relatable to non-scientists. Research and researchers already exist in something akin to a bubble without the need for any help to remove them further from the consumers of science.

If sexuality didn’t matter in the first place – i.e. there was no discrimination based on orientation to begin with – then we can question why people suddenly cared. The matter of fact is that sexuality and gender are both factors that affect a person’s standpoint and potential for advancement in science as well as academia (and LIFE). Even if we were to place such importance on “quantifiable repeatable cold hard science”, there are people behind the science who work very hard and deserve a bit of sympathy for their hardships. No scientists, no new science (explained for human consumption; if science was a sentient being, who knows if it would care about us puny humans).

There’s also the possibility that I’m responding to somebody who simply is an unsympathetic killjoy, but never mind.

(I feel I should also add that my response is purposefully placing science on the pedestal used by the tumblr-user ibringyoulove… what irony. Even those of us with all the privileges afforded us by social norms have down days in the lab. Let’s just all care a bit more about each other, okay?)

Anybody else wish to take up the thread?

Two Things

Thing One: For what its worth (i.e. my tiny little outlet versus their huge one, but I made a promise to rally for contributors a long time ago…), I know that Public History Commons are looking for contributors to their History@Work series. The stories there tell of fascinating tales of researchers’ quests to find more history. Go have a look! Perhaps you’ll be interested in sharing your own experiences.

Thing Two: Yet another promise that has been dragging on: telling you about Tokyo. As a partial historian I should really have gone to Kyoto, or so they said, but that will have to wait until next time! Let’s ease ourselves in with three moments.

1. A chunk of Tokyo seen from the observatory on top of the Metropolitan Government Building (it’s free to go up there! They have friendly guides who sometimes get accosted by inquisitive tourists who keep asking questions and won’t let them them stick to the script!). Hint: Mt Fuji is not in this picture, so don’t bother looking for it. It was such a hazy day anyway you could only barely make out the snow-covered top in the distance.

2. Tokyo Science Museum. The one close to Budokan in Kitanomaru Park, if you find that easier to navigate. In short, this was very child-friendly and not at all adult-friendly. The picture shows an exhibit on the smartphone and all the machinery it can replace. That exhibit was my favourite. That said, if you are after a sciency museum, and are a party of adults, I suggest trying the one in Ueno, which my hosts were raving about; and if you’re looking for a museumy experience in Kitanomaru Park, MoMA Tokyo is my tip. (Or if you happen to share my profession, the, er, National Archives of Japan are also around the corner from Budokan.)

3. Cherry blossoms. These ones in Shinjuku Gyoen. They timed the symposium perfectly for us, and I am incredibly grateful for the hosts’ consideration. There were a lot of pinker ones, but I thought these whiter ones came out so nicely under the sun.

Greetings from Japan/placeholder

…and the Popularizing Science in the East and West Symposium at the University of Tokyo. It was two days of extremely (bordering on tiring) thought-provoking discussion on the popularisation of science in, primarily, Japan and the United Kingdom, covering all manner of topics from radium in hot springs to the fact that museums of the 19th century were hard-pressed to turn a profit.

I would have live-blogged both content and my presence as a rookie at this symposium, were it not for the information/inspiration overload and a well-planned social schedule, but I vow to bring you both the academic and the leisurely parts of this stay as soon as I have landed back home. In the meantime…

…enjoy this view from the park on Komaba campus.

Low energy…

…happens when there are a lot of things to do, and one is uncharacteristically unwell. (I generally take pride in my diamond-hard immune system.) Though there are, of course, small tidbits from life that are worth looking at anyway, especially in these times when people around me are talking about postdocs and what they want to do after their PhDs.

On one of the billion mailing lists I am on, there was recently a listing for a freelance vacancy (I shall spare the excess of details) as a press-release writer. This was specifically declared as a “PAID” position, with the word written in capitals. The matter of unpaid internships as such has been thoroughly debated in the online world already, but since when could a freelance opportunity be unpaid? Or was the “PAID” aspect of the position advertised as thus, in order to attract more freelancers? Would a freelancer consider a post if it was unpaid?

Thoughts?

Putting the money where your mouth is

Happy end-of-January! We all like to be reminded of the flighty transience of time, do we not? (Answer: we really don’t.) In order to avoid that particular reality, I like to focus on the tiny, perhaps inconsequential aspects of daily life, if only for a moment. So…

…do you know who Barnardo’s are? If not, the simple explanation is that Barnardo’s is a children’s charity. I have once even stood on a high street to collect money for them. Yup.

The image below is their latest campaign (suitably timed for the UK general election – which is in fewer than 100 days now, I believe), of which I made a blurry caption on a bus.

All for one and one for all?

The gist is that the current government awards more from the pot of social welfare to a mum who earns £70k a year than a mum who earns £9k a year, given that the other circumstances in the lives of these respective mothers are equal, i.e. same number of children (of the same age), same civil status, same hours worked, etc. Barnardo’s thinks that this is unfair, and wants you to text their number if you also think it is unfair. However, Barnardo’s have not stated on this billboard why they think is unfair, or how they believe that the welfare money should be spent.

Now, as far as I’m concerned, it would be great if everybody pulled their load, and received the proportionally same benefits (not necessarily all in cash) from the state, although I do not think I will see that happen in my lifetime. That said, I am uncertain that this us-versus-them, or rather we and the “other” – because depending on how you identify yourself, there will always be somebody who is different and therefore “other” to you – method is the way to make people donate to your charity. By alienating one portion of the public you are implying that they are doing something wrong, which is not necessarily the case. Frankly, everybody seems to be having a tough time right now.

But! Do you know what a really, truly tough time of life is? The time you have to wait between removing a cake from the oven, and eating it.