Jul 262016
The rock hugging a rock

Stale air is gross. Anyone who has let rip in a closed room, and immediately prayed to the fart gods that no-one enters, is aware that smells linger for a long time. I have actually always wondered whether the ground crew who first open up the door of a long haul flight are witness to more than 10 hours and 200 passengers worth of vomit inducing bum smell. That being said, if Brazilian fart porn is your particular fetish, perhaps working as ground crew for Brazilian Airways would be a dream come true.

Rock boffins (which, by the way, is the appropriate term to encompass geochemists, geologists and ACDC enthusiasts) from the famous rock loving countries of Canada, USA, Scotland, France and China, have found and analysed the most stale air ever found. The air has been locked up in a rock for 815 ± 15 million years or, to put that into perspective, about as long as it feels when you are sat in a geology lecture.

The rock was crushed, presumably between the buttocks of the wrestler and actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and the released gas was analysed for its oxygen content. The boffins found that the oxygen level was far higher than than expected – oxygen made up 10.9 percent of the gas. This is five times more than they were expecting for the age of the sample and about half of what we have today (about 21%). This amount of oxygen is more than enough to support life, calling into question our current understanding of why life didn’t appear earlier and why The Rock is still cast in movies.

Party pooper geochemist, Noah Planavsky, says that the result may be wrong as over millions of years other gasses may have diffused into the rock sample changing the gaseous composition. Although, they probably asked for his opinion at an inconvenient moment.

To read more, click on the link:

RESEARCH FOCUS: Cracking the Neoproterozoic atmosphere?Geology, August 1, 2016, v. 44, p. 687688

Jul 192016
Comparison of safe sex with a condom and safe science communication with peer-reviewed journals

Science communication is a strange mistress. People like it done in different ways and most will be happy to tell you the way they prefer it. Here are the other ways that science communication (or as the cool kids are saying – SciComm) is like sex:

Don’t start doing it in public unless you are invited

This one should, hopefully, come as no surprise – at least in regards to the sex bit. In terms of science communication however, maybe it isn’t as obvious. As a young, and not so young, scientist I’d quite happily shout down anyone I encountered at social gathering who dare spout unscientific nonsense in my vicinity. I’d think to myself “how dare they not know everything that I know!” and proceed to unleash a barrage of, what I thought, was a very useful explanation of why the foot detox machine their Auntie sells is rubbish. Sometimes I’d squeeze an entire university module into about 10 minutes of explanation. This approach can leave the person you are trying to “communicate” with convinced that science is “preachy” and “thinks it has all the answers”. Of course, if asked a specific question about science, and I knew the answer, I’d happily whip it out for people to be in awe of.

Sometimes people do it better than you –  and that is OK

We all had a friend while growing up who loved to tell you that they were having frequent, wild sex which definitely did NOT include premature ejaculation. Your experience was, at best, tepid and scary.. But, just like science communication, practice makes perfect. Don’t let those awesome science communicators put you off, you can take inspiration from their best bits and apply them to your own performance. You can also find many talks and tips online that will help you hone your skills and impress the other people in the room.

You don’t need a partner – it’s just more fun if you have one

Both sex and science communication can be done a variety of ways – on your own, in a group, while thinking about other things and in the back seat of a car. Doing it solo means that it can be done anywhere and at anytime according to your work schedule. I have really enjoyed my solo activities since it is me, and me alone, who decides how it turns out. However, I am confident that we can all agree that when two or more people are involved it makes a huge difference to motivation levels. I have particularly enjoyed my interactions with The Science Nation and hanging out with good friends and producing Publish, Perish or Podcast. Including more people draws on different skills, which some people are better at than others. Collaborations also share the work load required to satisfy your audience – particularly if they are a little more fussy.

Start slow and build it up

The act of communicating science should follow a narrative in order to draw in your audience. In other words, tell a story. Don’t rush in, build a story that the audience is willing to invest time in. If you give away all of your best bits within two minutes you risk leaving people underwhelmed and bored. Work your way up to a satisfying end and, as I have said before, know who your audience is and adapt your performance for them.


What other ways do you think science communication is like sex?

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Jul 122016
audience sat in a conference

Yes, we get it. You’re clever. Or at very least, you have played the academic game well enough to have manoeuvred yourself to the top of the academic ladder. A while back I wrote about how not to give a shit presentation, but now it’s time to address you and your shitty, always over time, overly complicated and patchwork-like presentation.

Without a doubt, Professors have given some of the worst scientific presentations I have ever seen. It’s the perfect storm of self-importance and complicated graphs which make professor level presentations insufferable. I’d much rather listen to a PhD student who has taken the time and effort to rehearse and, most importantly, cares about giving a well thought out presentation than sit through another look-at-all-the-cool-things-I-had-my-students-do presentation.

Alright, first things first, we know what happened. You got invited to give a talk because you are a well-known scientist and, because you haven’t stepped in the lab for the best part of a decade, you asked your PhD students and/or post-docs to send you “a couple of slides about your research”. So far, you have not done anything wrong. We know being a professor is a tough gig. You have to secure grant funding, publish papers and more recently, hobnob with industry, in order to convince the Vice-Chancellor not to sack you when the inevitable latest round of redundancies happen.

What you continue to get wrong is assuming your notoriety excludes you from providing a well-structured and focused presentation that…wait for it…runs on time – you can’t rely on the chair person with an anxiety disorder to stop you when your time is up.

Perhaps you think a sizable portion of the people who are attending your talk will know who you are and also be familiar with your acronyms and field specific language. The reality is that a large portion of the audience have been told to turn up because “it makes the department look like a busy and thriving research environment”. These people will be the ones sneaking a look at their phone while you’re distracted trying to operate the laser pointer (middle button).

Before your talk ask yourself these simple yes or no questions:

  1. Do I know who my audience are? If it’s a general audience, chill out. We don’t want a run down on your entire career. Choose your favourite bit(s) and stick to it.
  2. Have I looked over all the slides and made sure I can connect them with a coherent story? You should not be surprised by any of the slides your post-doc gave you and the story should flow nicely between them.
  3. Have I removed slides that I plan on skipping over? It is not OK to say “ignore these slides, and if you have epilepsy, cover your eyes”.
  4. Have I been to the toilet? Your bladder isn’t what it used to be.
  5. Are my slides free of any undefined, not commonly used, acronyms or specialised language that a non-specific science audience would not know? – save the specific terminology stuff for a conference that’s in your field.
  6. Did I practice my talk in front of an audience before today? Just like talking dirty, if you haven’t said it out loud it’s probably going to come out wrong.
  7. Can people read the axis of my graphs? Copy and pasting from the Nature paper you’re desperate to talk about is not going to help.
  8. Are all these slides necessary?

If you have answered “no” to any of these questions you need to stop and ask what the f**k you are doing.

Failing everything, pay careful attention to your audience. They’re the best indicators of whether you need to stop talking. Once the lecture theatre chairs start squeaking, as the audience shuffle around to get blood back into their legs and bums, consider stopping and letting the person who invited you ask a couple questions. They will always start with “Thank you for a great presentation”, don’t be fooled, they are lying.

Do you want more honest opinions and frank discussions about science?

Check out Publish, Perish or Podcast! 

Jul 052016
full time part time road sign

Have you ever sat in work, looked out the window and thought “I wish I didn’t have basic human desires, like eating, mating and bitching about Ken in accounts, so I could just do my jobs 24 hours a day”? we’ve all been there. If the answer is no that’s mental, read on…

The typical scientific working week comprises at least 5 days (or 40 hours) worth of work. Although, many academics and scientists work as if their success depends on not seeing or interacting with another human being – unless it’s through email. That work can consist of hands-on research, writing for angry reviewers or the physical pantomime of productivity whilst not actually getting anything done. For those that aren’t strict with their time, the pressures of an academic appointment can start eating its way into weekends, holidays and time sat watching Netflix, drinking wine, multi-screen Facebook stalking and taking pictures of your dog or cat in adorable positions.

For the past 2 years, I have been a part-time scientist and this is why you should consider it too:

  • People get jealous of your “every weekend is a long weekend” lifestyle.
  • I have been using Fridays to do the things I really enjoy, which includes being in my underwear for large parts of the day, pretending I’m a pirate and also editing for the best podcast on earth (yet to be recognised as such) Publish, Perish or Podcast.
  • I am learning new things (video editing, a new language and how to convince my partner I did NOT eat most of the chocolate), although not directly related to my day job, they’ve all been used in my job at some point…

The strange thing is, despite my extra underwear time I feel just as good at my job, more creative while I’m in work and Mondays now feel like a Tuesday, Tuesdays feel like a Wednesday, Wednesdays feel like a Wednesday and Thursday feels like a Wednesday. Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays are rolled into an orgy of cafes, beer and writing shit for the internet and invited contributions to things (yes, despite this blog people still invite me to write stuff – I don’t understand either).

When I first asked to go part-time in my previous job my boss looked worried. Supportive, but worried. That is, until I said that the day would be used to follow my science communication desires. So, if you are going to ask your boss if you can go part-time, make up something that sounds productive. That way they feel good about the decision even if you are planning to stay at home and see how many clothes pegs you can cram onto your genitalia before passing out.

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