The Quantum Theorist at the Wedding
At the weekend I went to a wedding and sat next to a theoretical physicist. This was exciting enough, but I discovered that he'd just finished a PhD in an area of research very similar to my own (computational quantum mechanics). It’s a pretty niche area so I was astonished another human being had actually heard of it. Naturally I wanted to talk to find out more.
As he explained his work I realised the discovery he’d made was truly phenomenal. A potential game-changer which alters our understanding of Physics. Then, as I finished worshipping him, the conversation went like this…
Him: So it turns out the spin-state energies for non-ground-state systems follow a Gaussian distribution and that small-to-large system interactions lead to maximum entanglement.
Me: That’s amazing!
Him: Thank you, what was your research on?
Me: I made liquid wood.
Me: So, how’s your cheese-and-flower soup?
His work was so technically advanced I can’t sum it up neatly in a weblog, other than to say: we thought particles did a thing, but it turns out they do a different thing! This guy was making fundamental discoveries on the forefront of modern quantum mechanics, but my research can be summed up in a single sentence over a wedding lunch...so who’s the real genius here?
It then occurred to me that I’ve never actually talked about my research. I mention it briefly on the “about me” page and I’ve occasionally discussed it in lessons because I honestly think it’s interesting (that’s why I studied it) but I’ve never gone into any detail. So here it is for them what is curious.
Why would you want to make liquid wood?
As a species we use about 2x10^20 Joules’ worth of energy per year. Most of that comes from burning coal, oil and natural gas. Three main problems with this. 1) burning these substances is toxic, 2) they fill the air with greenhouse gases, 3) they will run out. We need a new energy source and we need it badly.
A potential candidate is cellulose: one of the main substances found in plants. For starters, when you burn cellulose it burns clean i.e. doesn’t produce any toxic chemicals, second you can replant the trees you cut down (making it carbon neutral) and third, plants will be around for a very long time. Cellulose solves all three problems and the good news is we have lots available. The amount of cellulose energy produced every year by nature is around 2x10^21 i.e. if we harvest just 10% of what nature already produces, we solve the energy crisis. Nice.
Unfortunately we can’t just burn wood as a civilization (for a million reasons) so we need to extract the cellulose from the plant-matter and burn it on its own. Just one problem: Cellulose is VERY hard to extract from plant. It’s like mixing up a bunch of candyfloss with a bunch of carpet-fibres and then trying to extract the candyfloss.
What we really need is to somehow turn wood into a liquid (liquids are usually easy to separate).
Step One – What’s already been done?
If you want to do good research you have to find out what other people have tried. And, it turns out, somebody had already started investigating liquid cellulose. In 1934 a man named Charles Graenacher discovered, purely by accident, that you could put small amounts of wood into a novelty chemical called an ionic liquid and get a thick wood-like sludge at the end. Back then his discovery was considered a bit of a joke – what would you want liquid wood for? It’s only in the past decade that people have rediscovered Graenacher’s research and realised how potentially useful it could be.
Thing is, we discovered the process by accident so it was basically a matter of fumbling around in the dark. Nobody knew why wood dissolved in these ionic liquids. If we could work out what was going on however we might be able to come up with a better way of doing it. After all, you can’t launch a rocket until you understand how gravity works.
There was already a bit of work being done on wood solvents by the time I got interested in the topic, but no theory behind it. Essentially it was a matter of: chuck some wood into a chemical and see if it works. Luck in other words. And this is where I began.
Step Two – Invent some calculations
Molecules are insanely small. Too small to be seen with a microscope. We also can’t ask them “how are you guys interacting?” The only way to know how molecules are really behaving toward each other is to use something called computational quantum mechanics.
Quantum mechanics is the most fundamental theory we have for explaining the world. It’s the study of the Universe at its deepest level – the very core of understanding. The only problem is that quantum mechanics is less than a hundred years old and, although rigorously tested and validated, we don’t know everything about it.
So, firstly I had to invent a new quantum-mechanical method for calculating how the molecules in wood interacted with the molecules in ionic liquids (if you want a more technical description of how I did this see below*).
This took several months and it was probably the most exciting part of the research. I spent most of my time sitting in front of a computer combining different equations to see if I could get any which worked. I can’t pretend I had a hunch from the beginning and I can’t pretend I had a Eureka moment either. Really, it was months of educated guesswork which finally started to yield sensible results.
So, about three months in, I developed a new way of simulating particle interactions by bootstrapping a bunch of different quantum mechanical methods together. Honestly, the method I invented is pretty clunky. It can be summed up in a single equation (let’s call it the tim James equation) but it looks so ridiculous I’d feel embarrassed to even display it. But, ugly as it was, my new equation worked to 96.6% accuracy.
Step Three – Use quantum mechanics to work out what’s going on
With my brand new method for calculating interactions between molecules I began teaching the computer how to correctly simulate the chemicals in wood and the chemicals which dissolved it. This would hypothetically tell me what was going on at the quantum level.
This part of the research was mostly tedious data gathering. I’m talking: wake-up, input some information, wait for the computer to pump out an answer, then repeat, over and over. For eternity.
My calculations also took up a lot of computer-space, so I decided to run everything at night. I became nocturnal because it was the best time to get access to all the computer-power I needed. Furthermore, to save time, I rigged nine computers to run simultaneously on different parts of the calculation. Many is the night you could find me in the computer lab at three in the morning, nine-computers all humming together as I ran back and forth between them making sure none of them went wrong. And I took a couple of photos...
After several months of this I began to start seeing a pattern. I got a feeling for what was going on with all these molecules...according to my computer simulation of them...and I started to make a guess as to why wood can be partly dissolved in certain ionic liquids.
Cellulose strands are tightly bound to each other via something called Hydrogen bonding (it's the same thing which makes the kevlar in bullet proof vests so tough). Certain ionic liquid chemicals seemed to be the right shape, size and charge to slip between the cellulose strands and ease them apart.
Step Four – Test it
My hypothesis suggested that for wood to dissolve, the ionic liquid had to have certain key features. So I decided to put them all together in one molecule. This new chemical I designed was named 1-crotyl-3-methylimmidazolium chloride (CMIM Chloride for short) which, if my hypothesis was correct, would out-dissolve any other ionic liquid.
And this is where things got tense. By now I’ve spent about a year on the project. I’ve invented my own equation, my own QM-approach, my own hypothesis and my own chemical. But if I don’t actually test it I might as well just say “I reckon this is true...” I had to actually make my chemical for real in the laboratory, sprinkle in some woodchips and see if it worked.
This is the part I suck at by the way. I’m not a very good lab chemist. Perhaps I’m just not very patient, or maybe too clumsy or careless, but I’m much safer with a computer and pen/paper in front of me than glassware. Everybody else is much safer too.
However, with a few false-starts, a lot of cursing and one near-explosion (sadly I’m not joking, I really did once almost blow up a fume cupboard by accidentally making a bomb) I finally managed to synthesise my computer-predicted wood solvent.
And then the moment of truth. It worked.
We tried using wood-chips, cellulose powder and even cigarette paper and they all sunk into the ionic liquid and formed a liquid. The new chemical really did dissolve wood about as accurately as my model predicted.
By no means does this prove my theory is correct of course, someone could come along tomorrow and point out the flaws in my method, but it was a really nice way to finish. Technically, even if my hypothesis had been proven wrong then that's still good for Science. Any discovery tells you something, even a negative one. But I'm a human...and it felt nice to have my hypothesis validated. And that's where my work ended.
I did take a photograph of it but I can't find it anywhere. If you're curious however, this is a photograph of liquid wood from another research group...
So there we have it. I managed to create liquid wood and not die. There are still some big problems with my chemical however. It cost about £60 to make 10 centimeters cubed of the stuff, as well as 5 hours of dangerous labwork. And then the actual dissolving of the wood took about an hour. My chemical is expensive, works slowly and takes ages to prepare (not to mention being quite dangerous) but making an efficient wood solvent wasn't really my aim. My aim was to come up with a theory which would help future Chemists design their own wood solvents.
Now that we know how it works (assuming I'm right...fingers crossed) we're not fumbling in the dark any more, we can go straight to the design stage. My contribution to this field is minor but I'm still proud of it. If, one day, we find a way to base our planet on a cellulose economy rather than a fossil fuel one, I can say that I helped, in a very small way, to nudge us in the right direction. Basically I've helped save the world. You're welcome.
* Technical bit...
Unfortunately you can’t fully describe what a particle is doing at any given time due to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle (it is impossible to simultaneously know the momentum and location of a sub-atomic particle). Instead, we have to work out the probability of a particle being in a certain place at a certain time. We can do that using the Schrodinger wave equation. This treat’s the particle’s probable behaviour as a wave. A wave which describes the probable behaviour of a particle is called a “wavefunction”. If you calculate the wavefunction for a particle you can predict its probable behaviour.
Currently, the mathematics required to accurately model anything more than two particles just doesn’t exist. We simply haven’t figured out how to solve the Schrodinger equation for a three-body system. The reason is that every time you add a particle in, you add a huge number of extra parts to the calcultion. For example, to correctly solve the Schrodinger equation to model a single atom of Iron requires (I have genuinely counted out the zeroes here, this isn’t just a joke) 10000000000000
00000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000 different terms in one equation. No computer on Earth can do this yet.
By the late 80s however, a new type of quantum mechanics was being developed called Density Functional Theory (DFT for short) which uses a few clever approximations and fudgey-guesses to give you an answer which is pretty reliable. So if it’s a choice between “perfect answer but impossible to calculate” and “reasonable answer and can actually calculate” the second option is the clear choice. Therefore, most people modelling many-body systems will be working with DFT.
DFT, invented by Walter Kohn, takes a completely different approach. Rather than calculating the wave-behaviour of each particle individually and combining them all, Kohn suggested we treat all the electrons as one thing: a sort of fuzzy electron-cloud which can be thick in some places and thin in others. This 3D cloud of electron-ness tells you the probability of finding an electron in a certain place…thicker the density the more likely it is to be there.
DFT is still pretty new though, and at the moment it can only calculate the electron density for one molecule, not an interaction between several. So here’s what I actually did. DFT works as follows: you start with an approximately correct structure (often based on an earlier, cruder type of sum called a Hartree-Fock calculation). You then undergo what’s called an iterative process where you make a little change to the molecule, calculate the stability, make another change, calculate stability, make another little change, calculate and so on and so on until you get an optimum answer which can’t be improved or made any more stable.
Sometimes you go in the wrong direction of course and head away from stability so your final answer ends up with a molecule whose stability is the square-root of minus one. (Not that I ever did that of course, never.)
What I decided to do was combine DFT with another type of calculation called molecular mechanics (MM). MM is very good at dealing with many-body systems which is DFT’s main weakness. So I spent a few months trying to find a way of combining these two approaches to create some kind of super MM-DFT process. To describe the actual process I used to develop this approach would be very tedious so I'll just go to my final method which worked as follows:
Start by assuming all the atoms are rubber balls and all the bonds between them are springs (treat them as classical structures in other words). Put them into a virtual 3D box and bounce them around using MM several thousand times. Eventually, by pure chance, it will end up finding stable and likely arrangements of all the molecules. Take this structure and perform hundreds of little calculations on it with DFT until you end up with a sensible answer. Simple as that. Nothing fancy, nothing groundbreaking, just take your answer to one calculation and use it as the starting point for the next.
The only problem still arising was that DFT treated the whole system as one molecule rather than three. To get rid of this problem I used an even cruder fudge-factor where I calculated the average difference between a covalent bond and an ionic bond and simply subtracted this from every bond which shouldn’t have been there. It’s honestly amazing how close to the real answer this ridiculous cheat got me. But I can honestly say I’m the first person in the world to have used it. I’ll probably also be the last.
Seriously, if equations are works of art, mine was a Jackson Pollock painting.
This sounds like a made up story. I didn’t believe it myself. Urban legends about politicians, Science and mathematics are very common. But this one isn't a legend. The state of Indiana really did come close to legally changing the value of pi. The idea of such a story is hilarious. The reality of such a story is horrific.
In 1897 a man named Edward Goodwin thought the accepted value of pi couldn’t be correct. I’ve done a video on the subject of pi, but the important facts are as follows: If you draw a circle, you’ll find the circumference is longer than the diameter. Specifically, it's just over three times longer. No matter how big you draw it, the circumference will always be three, one tenth, four hundredths, five thousandths, nine ten-thousandths...bigger than the diameter. Or, to write that number in numerals: 3.14159…times bigger.
This number, 3.14159… is what we call an “irrational” number, meaning you can’t translate it into a fraction. For example, the number 1.75 can be translated as 7/4. The infinitely long number 0.33333... can be written as 1/3 and so on. But pi is not like that. Pi cannot be written as a fraction or in any other simple form. It goes on forever (as far as we can tell) and there is no pattern to it (as far as we can tell). It is irrational.
To be honest, pi is a hideous, inconvenient and awkward number. It goes on forever at random which means we can never know its accurate value (it doesn't have one). So, in order to deal with this monstrosity, we call it "pi" for short and represent it with the famous stone-henge symbol. Incredibly useful in pretty much all of modern Physics, not to mention engineering, statistics and a whole host of other stuff. Pi is an important part of the modern world and yes, it's a shame it's such a horrible number.
Enter an Indiana gentleman by the name of Edward Goodwin; an amateur mathematician who didn’t agree with this value of pi. His reasoning was that a circle couldn’t possibly have an irrational number built into it. The world has a perfect design so the idea of circles having this ugly number hidden inside them wasn’t to be tolerated. So he set about trying to prove that pi wasn’t 3.14159...
According to the mathematician David Singmaster, Goodwin produced nine completely new values of pi, each using a different method (all wrong) six of which he decided showed real promise. Among these six values were 3.2, 3.23 and even 4.
Now, whereas most people might get other mathematicians to check their work, Goodwin did something else. He tried to get a law passed which would make pi legally one of his values. He tried to ban the concept of 3.14159...
The proposed bill was submitted to the Indiana Committee on Education as House Bill #246 (Indiana House of Representatives, 1897) and, instead of considering him a crackpot, the representatives actually decided to take a vote on pi and Goodwin’s bill was approved by 67 votes to nil.
That’s right. 67 actual human beings decided that pi was not 3.14159… but one of Goodwin’s values. Following approval, the bill was then submitted to the state Senate where it successfully made it past the first reading. Fortunately, on the second reading, a member of the legislature showed it to his mathematician friend, Clarence Waldo. Waldo made sure the bill was shot down and the value of pi was allowed to remain as it was. Crisis was averted and Goodwin was largely forgotten by history. To this day, nobody knows what he looks like. A photograph of Waldo does survive on the other hand, but he's in the middle of a crowd somewhere and it's really hard to find him.
The fact that Edward Goodwin disagreed with pi is not a problem. Honestly it’s not. If someone says something strange (and pi is strange), you’re allowed to question them and suggest alternatives (provided you're willing to accept the strange idea if it still turns out to be better than yours).
In fact, challenging accepted ideas is one of the reasons we make progress as a species. Think where we’d be if nobody challenged the ideas of Earth being flat and sitting at the centre of the Universe.
Goodwin made a mistake and guess what, getting things wrong in Maths and Science is absolutely fine! True, he should have got his ideas peer-reviewed by other mathematicians, rather than going straight to government, but I find it hard to be angry at this guy. I kind of like him. I mean, it shows weirdly passionate dedication to come up with nine different values for pi. No, Goodwin’s actions aren’t the major issue here.
I don’t even have a problem with 67 politicians not understanding what pi is. Most politicians have backgrounds in business and law, not mathematics. For what it’s worth, I would like to see more Scientifically and mathematically educated people in government (obviously) but the fact remains that most politicians have expertise in...well....politics rather than STEM.
It’s understandable that a room of non-mathematicians got confused by the technical language of Goodwin’s bill, so it’s forgivable none of them realised how outrageous his claims were. Failing to understand something is not a crime either. The real problem is that these senators decided to take a vote on it anyway.
They thought they could determine truth by popular vote and that's not how we figure things out. Did they think circles all over the country would suddenly develop points in order to validate the new law? Governments have to make decisions on ethical conduct, economics, trade and welfare of its citizens. Their function is to protect and serve the population of their country. They do not get to make decisions about objective truth. Natural law does not have to conform to governmental law and if we say pi is legally 9, that doesn't make it so, Reality don’t work like that guv.
The fact is you can’t decide truth by committee or by vote or by authority. You decide it by investigating and considering the evidence. Nature is not a democracy. She's a dictator. Whatever she says, goes. You certainly aren't allowed to reject a fact because you don’t like it or make parts of reality illegal. If nature is ugly, then she’s ugly. Deal with it.
I, for instance, find it very difficult to accept the existence of the movie Flashdance. I mean, the main character is a welder who moonlights as a cabaret dancer?? It’s a film which tries to fuse gritty crime-drama and psychological angst with ballet and 80s disco. How is that a thing which the Universe permitted?
My point is, Flashdance is not a part of nature I’m comfortable with. But I can’t just vote it out of existence and pretend it never happened. Flashdance is a part of the world and I have to make peace with that. What a feeling.
Likewise, pi is the value it is. If you find this aspect of nature strange and unattractive…well…too bad. That's how circles are. The ratio between their outside and their middle is an unpleasant number. You can go out and check it by measuring the circle yourself, that's the whole point of finding out truth. You can find it out!
Nature’s laws are not always what we’d like them to be. Sometimes unusual, sometimes overly complicated and even, in the case of pi, messy. But, like it or not, you don’t get to say how the world is. You can only discover and accept it. If you don't like our Universe then find another one. And take the movie Flashdance with you.
Science syllabuses across the country are being updated this year - a result of Michael Gove's "educational reforms". Syllabus-alterations happen a lot though, so it's pretty much par for the course. Some topics within a subject get shelved and others get brought in (oh, and in case you're wondering, the plural of syllabus can be both syllabi or syllabuses).
The new Science schemes are heavier on content than the previous bunch and there are a few nastier topics to contend with, but on the whole they cover the same basic stuff. One thing I'm glad to see the back of however is the topic of paint drying.
Let's be clear about this: I'm not telling a joke. The GCSE Chemistry syllabus I've taught for the last five years had, as part of unit C1, the Science of paint drying. A subject so boring we have a phrase for it to mean "the ultimate in boring-ness".
Apparently, someone at the head offices of our exam board decided that paint drying was a topic which would help inspire the next generation of Scientists.
Was it a joke? Did someone submit the topic as a Christmas-party prank and it got approved so they just kept their heads down? Was the chief of the exam board married to someone who worked for Dulux? Had money changed hands?? It's a bad sign when the story of how something got into the syllabus is more intriguing than the topic itself.
So imagine you're a teacher. You care about your subject, you think it's important. You also know that many of the teenagers in front of you are probably tired and don't really want to be in school. Most of them are patient because they know you want to help them, but a few are poised to kick off if they get bored.
And you have to stand there and explain to them why they need to learn about paint drying. Do you fess up and go with the honest, although soul-crushingly familiar words "we've got to learn it because it's on the syllabus"? Or do you lie and tell them this is the most exciting, most relevant topic in the world?
One thing I've learnt about myself as a teacher is that I'm really bad at faking it. A few years ago, when I was newer to teaching, I tried to fake enthusiasm for a topic in order to motivate the students. They saw through it immediately of course, and I decided to just be myself. You can't make the Science of paint drying interesting. Well, maybe you can, but I surely can't. I mean, if you're teacher-of-the-year you can probably make anything interesting, but for most of us teachers we have limits and paint-drying is well beyond mine.
But the idea of "putting on an act" is very interesting. As a teacher you have a similar job to an actor in many ways. You have to stand before an audience, deliver some content, keep them interested for the whole show and make sure there's a clear narrative to what you say. But teaching isn't acting, and I'll try to explain why.
You're often taught, during teacher training, that it's important to put on a persona for the classroom, some kind of character to preserve your own sanity. The idea is that you are "tim" when you're in the office but you become "Mr James" when you step through the classroom door.
I remember one of the tutors on my training course demonstrating this one morning. He marched into the room and yelled for silence (a room of adults) then took a register as "Mr Grunthorpe". I even got told off for saying "yup" rather than "yes, sir" when he said my name. He kept it up for ten minutes, before he paused, grinned at everyone and went back to being Frank. I can't deny it had an impact.
I know other teachers who are very good at this. I've seen them. One minute they're talking to me in the office as "Horace" and then suddenly they're "Mr. Nipperhosen" or whatever. I'd like to say you should always be yourself in the classroom but there's a good reason for all this persona-stuff. One story in particular will demonstrate this painfully well.
I was at chess club one Thursday evening. The student I was playing outwitted me brilliantly with a discover checkmate after ten minutes. I was impressed, surprised and entertained so, as we sat laughing at my defeat, I let slip the words "Tom you clever *@$^#!" Argh.
This was how I'd respond if someone outside school had outwitted me as cleverly as this year 11 had done. But I let my mouth run away and acted like a normal person. He froze, as did I, and then he laughed even harder. The head-of-year happened to be in the room though and I was taken aside and spoken to. Rightly so.
If I'd said that to a stranger (who I was mysteriously playing chess with) there would have been no issue of course. But teachers are expected to act and speak a certain way. If you swear at someone in Tesco's you're just rude. If you swear at a student, that's a different matter altogether.
Now this may come as a surprise to you, but I'm a human being, as are most teachers. Sometimes we say silly things, sometimes we make off-colour jokes and sometimes we use naughty language. In other words, we act like ordinary people. But when you're in a classroom you've got other people's kids in front of you and you want to be a good role model. Many parents would be very unhappy if you acted like a normal person.
I remember once talking with a priest and I said something which surprised him. His reponse was to blaspheme loudly in the middle of church. For what it's worth, this made him seem more human to me, a real person who spoke like regular folk do, but I could imagine someone writing to the archbishop in complaint.
My point is that the chess-playing incident was an example of me letting my guard down. As a result of this I decided to make a real effort to be "Mr James" and I discovered two things about myself. One, I wasn't very good at acting and two, it actually made me a less effective teacher.
None of the students I currently teach have ever met the old "Mr James" but, to give you an idea, I was briefly nicknamed "The Colonel" at my first school. I strode around the playground with a determined authority. I never smiled, I never told jokes and I didn't take any nonsense. I made my sense of authority on Science clear. Nobody could question or challenge me. But I really sucked at it.
I wasn't good on discipline, I just snapped and shouted at people. I wasn't someone pupils could talk to if they needed help, I was the austere guy who bled knowledge. And I couldn't keep it up. I was spending so much time on acting that my love of Science got buried beneath my desire for people to believe the tough-on-discipline act. So I threw the whole thing out the window and decided to just be myself and talk about Science.
For me, teaching isn't about performance, it's about shifting gear. The person I am in front of a class is always there inside me, I just keep him subdued when I'm not in school. The same way people chanting at a football match aren't faking their enthusiasm. They don't act like that in the grocery store, nobody sings boisterous songs at the frozen peas, but their love of the sport is 100% authentic. They aren't putting on an act when they go to a match, they just uncage a different side of themselves.
So, when we cover a subject I'm not fired-up about, I can't fake enthusiasm for it and, if I'm honest, those lessons are probably not my best.
I went to school with a guy who could act though. He was one of those people who could vanish into a role, so much that you didn't even recognise him. That's not a joke either. I once went to see him in a play where he was a mentally-deteriorating soldier suffering from PTSD. And you'll notice my wording there. He wasn't playing this character...he WAS this character. I'd gone along expecting to see my mate playing a soldier. Instead I saw the soldier.
I'd known this guy since I was 12, yet I didn't recognise the person in front of me. It didn't look like a performance, it was just a different guy! But that's what made him such a good actor. He could somehow change his brain, voice, mannerisms and movements to bring a character to life. I still feel like that soldier was a real person. If he saw me teaching however, he'd still recognise that it was basically tim james.
When I'm in front of a class I'm probably a little bit more hyped-up than when I'm sitting at home with my wife talking about crumpets or whatever. But the guy I become when I teach is still me. I'm not pretending to be anything I'm not. In fact, when I'm teaching is probably when people are seeing the real me. I just watch my language a bit more. So if I am acting, I'm playing a character who is 99% myself anyway.
The time for exam results will soon be upon us. It’s always an occasion for me to reflect on my life and ask the question we all have to ask from time to time: what am I doing with my life and why am I doing it?
Earlier this week I had coffee with two former students. It was a bittersweet experience (and a bittersweet coffee) to see two people I’m very proud of, and who I miss dearly, making their way in the world. There was a time when I’d talk to them all the time, but now they’ve utterly outgrown my classroom. It’s a wonderful feeling, but also a sad one, which I suspect many teachers are familiar with. They've flown the nest and moved out of my sphere of influence. Also, I spilt coffee all over my trousers.
So I’m feeling all wistful. Time to write a heartfelt blog about why I became a Science teacher. We’ll begin with a thoughtful, soul-defining image and caption.
Me as a Teenager
Anyone who’s known me since I was a teenager knows I’ve always loved Science. Actually, that’s not technically true. I’m pretty sure the day of my year 12 Chemistry coursework, after screwing up my results and spilling concentrated Lithium Hydroxide all over my fingers I may have uttered the words “I b****y hate Chemistry!” to my best friend, but barring that one morning, I’ve always loved Science.
There is a question which I think is worth answering though. Why am I a Science teacher rather than a Scientist? To be clear, I do consider myself a Scientist because a Scientist (to me at least) is someone who tries to think Scientifically. But I don’t make my living from doing Scientific research, I make a living by standing in front of people who don’t want to be there and telling them about Science. Why do I do this strange thing?
The head-teacher of our school was once sitting beside me at the year 11 prom and asked me this very pertinent question. “So, tim, it’s clear you love Science, but why did you become a teacher rather than a researcher, say?” At the time I gave him the stock response I always give, which I’ll get to later, but I thought I’d take some self-indulgent time to explain (for those who are curious) what motivates someone to do this job.
Teaching Myth 1: Long Holidays and a Short Working Day
Something I hear a lot is that teachers must be lazy because we don’t do a 9 – 5 shift. Obviously teachers work 9 – 3:10 and spend their holidays lounging around, being fed grapes by servants. And the holidays are enormous. We get two weeks at Easter, two at Christmas, three half-term breaks and a six-week Summer, which I'm currently enjoying. That’s 13 weeks of holiday while the average non-teaching job offers 5.6 (28 days to be precise). It certainly does look like teachers get an easy ride. Except there’s a few details worth considering.
According to the Department for Education’s most recent survey (2014) the average secondary school teacher works 55.7 hours per week. If those were the official contract hours it would actually be illegal because an employer is not permitted to demand over 48 hours per week from their employees.
According to the Trades Union Congress, the average person in the UK works a 43.6 hour week, so if we multiply that by the number of weeks the average person in the UK works (46.4 weeks) we learn that a non-teacher in the UK typically works 2,023 hours in a year. By contrast, the average teacher who works 55.7 hours a week for 39 weeks ends up working 2,172.
The average teacher works 149 more hours per year than a non-teacher. That’s roughly 21 extra working days. I’m not claiming teachers work harder than non-teachers though. We probably don’t. But while non-teachers are running a year-long marathon of gradual grind, teachers are running sprints for a month, then taking a rest. During term time I work insanely hard and then put my brain in a vat of ice every half-term break.
Teaching suits a very particular personality type. The “give it everything you’ve got and then crash” personality. I couldn’t sustain the level of energy required to be a teacher for 46 weeks straight (it would hospitalise me). But I can definitely keep it going for a couple of months, provided I have a week off every now and then.
I’m also not trying to argue that teachers have it tougher than other people. I’m just trying to remind everyone that although teaching may look like a nice relaxing job, it sure as shoot isn’t.
Teachers aren’t doing their job because it’s easy. They do 13 months’ worth of work in 10, so complain all you want about us getting long holidays. We earn them. Booyah!
Teaching Myth 2: Those who can – do. Those who can’t – teach.
The idea is that people who can do something skilfully will actually do that thing. If they fail, they become a teacher because they’re not quite good enough to make a living from it.
I’ll admit it’s probably true for some teachers. Like any job, teaching has some people who aren’t there by choice and there are some people who teach their subject because “what else were they going to do with their degree?”
But, for the most part (I’d like to believe) teachers are in the job because they can do, and they want to teach others how. I mean, the implication of “can’t do, therefore teach” is that anyone who has a skill immediately wants to keep it to themselves and hoard their knowledge so nobody else can do it. Clearly, that’s nonsense.
The very fact we’re no longer living in damp caves scrounging in the dirt for scraps of dead squirrel-meat is because people are willing to share what they’ve learned and pass their skills on.
And, for the record, we can do Science, pretty well thank you very much. Within my school’s Science department we have loads of teachers who graduated with 1st Class degrees from Russell Group Universities. Many of us have PhDs and Masters qualifications and some even have special awards for Science.
We have people who self-taught their entire degree, people who earned the highest A-level scores in the country, Oxbridge graduates, former high-earning engineers who took enormous pay cuts to do the job and so on. Many other schools can boast similar credentials, I’m sure.
And it’s not just in Science. One of the teachers of business at my school is an honest-to-God millionaire who made his money through excellent entrepreneurship. And he teaches. He doesn’t need the money, he does it because he wants to pass on his knowledge. A lot of teachers are actually pretty skilled people who could be doing other things.
And, for the record, when I finished my master’s degree (during which I invented my own equation and theorem) I was offered research positions with several groups and was head-hunted to work in computational quantum mechanics. I was also awarded a significant financial bursary by my University to pay some of my student fees because they wanted me to remain there. I’m not boasting by the way, I’m making a point. Actually, I am boasting, but I worked hard during my degree and did really well, I get to boast about that.
The point is: teaching was not a last resort for me, but something I actively pursued. I had plenty of options and the same is true for many other people in my profession. They are teachers because it’s what they want to do. I can do, and I teach. I should get a bumper sticker with that on. If I owned a car. I don’t though. Maybe I’ll just get it stencilled on my trousers.
Teaching Myth 3: Teachers Earn Loads
Teaching Myth 4: Yeah but you earn a decent amount.
Alright, I think teachers get paid reasonably-ish. The office for National Statistics April 2014 ASHE estimated that the median income for a full-time employee in the UK was 27K per year. Newly qualified teachers earn 21K and teachers who’ve been at it longer (if they’re lucky – we’ll get to that in a moment) max out at 31K. So actually, a teacher’s salary is pretty typical for a UK employee. Not too bad, not too mind-blowing.
The only frustration over teachers’ pay comes from seeing what our equally qualified friends wind up earning. Like I said above, a lot of teachers have excellent A-level and degree results, so we’re highly employable. With our grades we could be doing something far better paid and that's the source of annoyance.
It’s true that in my friendship group from school I wound up earning the least out of all of us. I’m not walking around with a ball of seething jealousy in my stomach though. Obviously not, they’re my friends and I’m happy for them. But I’m a human being and sometimes I’ll see things they can afford, holidays they can go on etc. etc. and I’ll wave my fist at the money gods because I’m just as qualified and work just as hard...and they earn way more. But hey, I chose to become a teacher.
Now, remember when I said teachers would go up the pay scale if they were lucky? Well here’s how it works: the teacher’s pay scale isn’t automatic like many other public-sector jobs. At the end of each year we can apply to go up a level (until we reach the top rung), and the decision is largely based on how our students have done in exams.
The assumption by the powers-that-be is that teachers will want to start teaching kids better if there’s a money incentive. I’m personally insulted by that because it implies I’m not really bothered how my kids are doing and I need some incentive. Believe it or not, most teachers want their students to do well for the students’ sake and incentivising us with money doesn’t make a blind bit of difference to how well we try and teach.
I try to teach to the best of my ability because I want to give the kids in front of me a good education. Perhaps the people who made this decision are motivated by money and therefore assume everyone else is, and perhaps it’s hard for them to imagine what it must be like to love your job, but for a lot of teachers the reason we’re teachers isn’t to do with money, otherwise we would have taken that other high-paying job we’re qualified for!
The fact I get paid is obviously important (after all, I need money to access the whole food and shelter thing), and I obviously wouldn’t turn down lots of money if offered. But I’m not a teacher because I have to pay the bills. I’m a teacher because I want to be a teacher.
Offering me a sliver of extra cash won’t actually change how well I teach. Sorry, but it won’t. I will keep teaching as well as I can, same as I always have, and I’m doing it for the kids, not my wallet. There are no teachers out there going: “wow, I’d better start caring whether my students pass, I can make some serious knicker if they do!”
The other problem with this payscale scheme is that it assumes better teaching = better grades. Well, just imagine you’re a head of department and you’ve got a fantastic teacher in your team and one who really can’t be bothered. Suppose you’ve also got a brilliant class full of motivated students who are going to do well regardless, and another class of grumpazoid chimp-hybrids who would rather be whipping each other with bike chains than learning Science.
You pair the talented teacher with the tougher class, right? And then the lazy teacher gets the good class who are going to do well anyway. Whose results look better and who goes up the payscale?
Money’s not everything but it is important and teachers get a sort-of satisfactory amount. I’d like us to get more, but I recognise there’s lots of people with lots of jobs and we can’t all get as much as we’d like.
Thing is, I’m not a teacher because it’s an easy job and I’m not a teacher because I couldn’t think of anything else to do. I’m not in it for the money and I’m certainly not in it for control or power (if you like having control and power, you would very quickly find teaching is not the job for you, because you basically don’t have any). I’m a Science teacher for loads of other reasons. Here are the main ones.
Reason 1: I’m in it for the species
I was once talking to someone I knew about the importance of getting people interested in Science. I really do believe it’s of vital importance that as many people as possible be Scientifically literate. Science has brought us out of the caves, given us modern medicine, technology, global communication and helps us look out at the vast expanse of space to find our own significance. Science is one of the key driving forces (if not the driving force) of the human race’s astonishing progress.
The more people who care how we relate to our Universe, the more people start to see the bigger pictures. I want to make sure our next generation has people who can think scientifically so they can navigate us through the problems we’re going to be dealt.
I am a Science teacher because I have admiration for the human endeavour and I want us to thrive because I truly think we could be worthy of it. Yes we’re flawed and yes we stumble, but look at what we have done in such a short space of time. Science is the key to our survival and I want to play a part in that effort.
After I’d said all this, the person I was speaking to said “tim, you can’t save the world.” I agree, I can’t. But there’s no harm in trying.
Reason 2: I like the people I teach
Teenagers get a bad rep. Yeah, fine, teenagers make mistakes and say stupid stuff, but have you ever looked around and noticed how dumb some of the stuff adults say is? I think there’s all sorts of reasons teenagers get criticised (I won’t get into it right now) but for what it’s worth I really value the insights and opinions of the students I teach.
Teenagers aren’t stupid, they aren’t sulky and they aren’t overly emotional, at least no more than adults are. Next time a teenager says something which bugs you, and your knee jerk response is to go “damn teenagers!” or “young people today”, take a moment to actually think about what it is they’ve said that annoys or angers you. And then think: do adults do those things as well?
Sometimes I’ll be teaching a student and they’ll get on my nerves (surprise, surprise, teachers don’t have infinite patience and love in their hearts for everything kids do). Things like arrogance, apathy, being unnecessarily confrontational etc. etc. But it would also get on my nerves if an adult did it. In fact, I struggle to think of a behaviour I dislike which is exclusive to teenagers.
Teenagers are human and, as it happens, often more open-minded, more carefree, more humorous, more optimistic, more ambitious, more irreverent, more willing to change their minds and more willing to learn than a lot of adults I meet.
Also, Biologically speaking, teenagers’ body clocks aren’t wired the same as those of an adult. A teenager’s circadian rhythm (the thing which determines sleep cycle) lags behind daylight significantly. Teenagers start to wake up about 10-11 O’clock and they don’t get sleepy until very late at night. So actually, a lot of the reason teenagers might seem sulky or moody or grumpy is painfully simple: they’re tired. If we based the school day on Biology it would start and finish a lot later (but does anyone listen to me???)
Reason 3: Science can make people happy
Science is one of the most exciting and optimistic things you can study becuase the world is beautiful. It’s astonishing, weird, incredible, and full of unending mystery. Nature is elegant and Science is exquisite.
We didn’t exist for 13.8 billion years of time and we won’t exist for countless trillions after we die. We are privy to a grand spectacle for 70 or so years and it's a waste of that time if we don't try to appreciate all this majesty and complexity. How lucky we are to be given such an opportunity.
I'm a Science teacher because when I look at the world around me, I’m filled with joy and hope. I want to share that with other people.
Reason 4: I like Teaching people stuff
Seems like an obvious one but it’s hard to pin down what this feeling is exactly. I think every teacher knows the feeling they get when a kid suddenly goes “oh! I get it now!” and you’ve helped them see something they couldn’t before. I can’t really explain or analyse it any deeper than that, but there’s something wonderful about helping someone grasp something. It doesn’t happen every lesson of every day with every student. But when it does happen it’s something really special.
Reason 5: I want to make a difference
As I said earlier, teachers don’t get paid a whopping amount in terms of money. But we are paid in the kinds of memories few other jobs have. As a teacher we have such potential to influence the lives of people for the better. To quote Socrates (one of the first great teachers) “the direction in which education sets a man will determine his future happiness”. Teachers have the ability to help shape a person and knowing I’ve made a difference to someone’s life is something I never want to give up.
When I did my GCSE exams, I began holding Science revision sessions round my house for my friends. They’d come along and I’d crash-course them through the GCSE. After the exam, several of them came up and thanked me, saying they wouldn’t have passed without my help. And wham, it hit me that this was something I wanted to do with my life.
The reason I’m a teacher, the real reason, the deep reason, is because it gives me the chance to make a difference. Sometimes it’s a small one; nothing more than making a pupil laugh when they’re in a bad mood, sometimes it’s a big thing, helping students pass their exams or choose a career path.
I remember the teacher who began it for me. My year 10/11 Chemistry teacher, Mr. Evans. We’ve all got a teacher like that in our past, I suspect. The one who pushed a button in our brain we didn’t even know was there, who showed us what we were capable of.
By incredible good luck, Mr. Evans was followed for me by another inspiring teacher, Mr. Miller. He’s the person who persuaded me to consider teaching as a career. I had reservations about it for a long time, but Mr. Miller was the one who pushed me into it and the thing is, he probably didn’t even realise he was doing it.
And then at University, my research supervisor (who shall remain mysteriously anonymous as it’s a running joke that I never tell anyone where I went to University) so we’ll call him Dr S. He’s the one who trained me to think like a Scientist and stretched my brain further than I thought it could reach. I didn't really know what my intellectual limits were until Dr S took me to them.
The point is, these three guys will be with me for the rest of my life. The impact they had on me is profound and can’t be understated. I’m a very happy person who loves what he does and I’m so grateful I was put on this path by those guys. That’s why I’m a teacher, because I want to make a difference to other people, the way Mr Evans, Mr Miller and Dr S made a difference to me.
The reason I’m a teacher is in the thank-you cards I get at the end of the year. It’s in students shouting my name as I walk past them in town. It’s in the hand-shakes I give pupils after they’ve finished their exams. It’s in the times my students make me laugh so hard I can barely breathe and in the tear-filled goodbyes I say to beloved classes. It’s in knowing I’ve had an impact, even a small one, on someone else’s life. And knowing that they’ve had the same impact on mine.
And finally the stock reason
When people ask why I’m a Science teacher it’s usually in the middle of conversation and they want a quick response. So I have an answer ready. It’s just as true as the other reasons. And, like almost all the best quotations about Science, it comes from Carl Sagan. On this occasion, the opening chapter of his magnificent book The Demon Haunted World. Sagan, when asked why he was so passionate about teaching Science, said:
“When you’re in love, you want to tell the world.”
I do what I do because of love.
I love Science.
I love being a teacher.
Neil Degrasse Tyson: techinsider
Niels Bohr: tumblr
Jason Statham: tumblr
Walter White: momentumbooks
As the caption above points out, his Holiness Pope Francis will probably not hear about my blog so I should make it clear I'm not writing to him, I'm writing about something he said recently. As part of World Youth Day, Pope Francis said "we are living in an age of sin", "I’ll say it clearly with its first and last name – is gender" and “Today, children are taught this at school: that everyone can choose their own sex. And why do they teach this? Because the books come from those people and institutions who give money."
The Pope has made it clear in this statement that he opposes the genderqueer movement and seems to particularly be worried about what's being taught in schools. This struck a pretty big nerve with me because I am one of those school teachers who is educating people about sex and gender and (as I said in my last week's blog) I come down very much in support of genderqueer rights.
So this is a tricky one and I don't want to get into theology. I'm not a theologian and, as I've said before, I keep my religious stance very private, both online and in the classroom.
I could be a passionate atheist, I could be a devout Catholic. I'm not going to say, so I'm going to ask you to avoid making any assumptions about me. Unless I've spoken to you about it personally, you don't know what I believe about God. But this isn't a dicussion about God, it's about Biology.
The Pope has openly criticised my position. I could stay quiet on the whole thing, however I feel that would be a cowardly response. I'm not afraid of discussing "difficult" topics in Science and Philosophy, so I decided I would write a few words about my thoughts on what the Pope has said this week.
Can you disagree with the Pope?
I'm well aware that in writing this blog post I will upset some readers and I am sorry. It's not my purpose to cause pain, but I am (obviously) going to be disagreeing with his Holiness. This is very dangerous ground for some because of an oft-quoted and oft-misunderstood dogma of the Catholic faith: the doctrine of Papal Infallibility.
Papal Infallibility is the teaching that the Pope can, on some issues, be regarded as unquestionably correct, meaning if he teaches something as part of his infallibility, whatever he teaches is to be taken as true. If the Pope decrees something as an article of faith to be held by all Christians, it is not to be challenged. He does not make mistakes.
Therefore, if I try to argue that the Pope is wrong about something I am challenging not only him, but his percieved infallibility and therefore the Catholic Church as a whole...which I'm not wanting to do.
However, the teaching of Papal Infallibility is a little more subtle so we need to be abundantly clear on what it means. In fact, Papal Infallibility has a very precise definition, laid down in 1870, which states that the Pope must clearly declare what he's saying to be an infallible decree. So, unless the Pope himself is defining one of his own teachings as part of the Infallibility doctrine, people are allowed to challenge and question him.
Most Popes do not invoke the infallibility right because most Popes are not idiots, most Popes are pretty sensible. Pope Benedict 16th once said "the Pope is infallible in very rare situations" and Pope John 23rd said, rather bluntly "I am not infallible".
Popes know they make mistakes, of course they do, they're usually highly educated men with backgrounds in Philosophy and Catholic history. Popes are human and they are well aware of it, so they don't use their infallibility to decree whatever they want. In fact there is a very short list of declarations which have been decreed "infallible" by the Catholic Church and most of them relate to the nature of Jesus or the Saints.
So, to challenge what Pope Francis said earlier this week is not challenging his Papal Infallibility, because he did not declare what he was saying to be infallible. Catholics can disagree with him, atheists can disagree with him and nobody is crossing any religious doctrines by doing so.
I'm not attacking Pope Francis as a person, either. For what it's worth, while I do feel he is mistaken on this issue, a lot of the time I have a great deal of respect for his teachings. He strikes me as a wise man who wants to focus on the Christian doctrines of substitutionary atonement and the love of Jesus...I just think he's misinformed on the Biology here. Which is fine, he's not a Biologist!
Isn't it a matter of opinion?
As I've said in pretty much every other blog post (so much that my regular readers can probably chant it along with me now): you are entitled to your opinion, but you can't have an opinion about nature.
When the Pope talks about sex and gender he is talking about the natural world. Not only that, he's talking about the easily observable natural world. If the natural world says one thing, you can't challenge it by saying "well I disagree". Reality doesn't work like that. If the evidence says x, you are only allowed to challenge it with counter-evidence, not your gut feeling.
I disagree with what the Pope said on gender and sex because I think he's getting his Biology muddled and I shall present my evidence. It is my responsibility to present a counterargument based on evidence and those who wish to challenge me (and you're more than welcome to) must do so with their own evidence.
If you want to defend the Pope, go for it, I'm willing to be argued around. But saying things like "well that's just your opinion" doesn't carry much weight with a Scientist - just being honest folks. So, I do think the Pope is wrong but I'm not advocating satanism, I'm not trying to oppose God, I'm not being paid for saying this and I'm not going on opinion or gut-feeling. I believe the Pope's mistake is simple:
It's not about Choice
I'm not going to pick up on the Pope using "gender" and "sex" synonymously, that would be a little pedantic because we know exactly what he means. He's objecting to the idea of teaching children "that everyone can choose their own sex" (he means gender).
Well, the thing is, I agree with him 100%. You can't choose your gender and it would be inaccurate to teach that you can. For the same reason you can't choose the number of legs you have. If a teacher got up and told her class "you can have as many legs as you want" I'd be first in line to object. The Pope is right, it would be wrong to teach that gender is a choice, but that's not what schools are teaching, that's not what Biology is saying and that's also not what the genderqueer movement is about.
The Pope seems to think that trans and genderqueer people are naturally born cisgendered (male in a man's body for instance) and then choosing to be something else. This is not the case at all. Gender does not seem to be something you can choose, but it can mismatch the typical anatomy. Look at the story of David Reimer, the male person who was raised female and ended up killing himself due to depression. Gender is an inbuilt thing and you can't easily change it.
The Diamond study points to the genetic components involved and the work of neuroscientists like Zhou, Chung and Swaab have shown that gender is most likely determined by neural architecture, specifically the BSTc region of the brain (there are likely other factors but this seems to be a principle one).
Genderqueer people choose their gender no more than a person chooses the colour of their skin. In fact, many genderqueer people, given the choice, would choose not to be genderqueer as it can lead to all sorts of legal, social and cultural problems. Genderqueer people are often made to suffer because of their being genderqueer identity.
If we replaced the word sex/gender in the Pope's words with the word blood-type then it would read "children are being taught they can choose their blood type" and that would definitely be wrong. But no Biologist or Biology teacher is teaching that because blood type, like gender, seems to be something you are born with.
Granted, a very small number of people do make a mistake and decide they are genderqueer when they are not, but (as I said in my previous blog) that number is, at most, 5% of the trans community. 95% of people are a lot happier after the transition.
The number of people who identify as genderqueer is less than 1% i.e. the majority of children do not identify as genderqueer. Some boys might try makeup on and some girls might dress in army fatigues but this isn't the same thing. A trans person isn't just dabbling with being feminine or masculine as all children do...it's their entire life.
Likewise, letting children know that some people are genderqueer doesn't necessarily mean every child will decide they are. After all, letting children know that some people get A grades, doesn't necessarily mean that every child will suddenly get As (trust me, it don't work like that guv).
But what it might do is give the genuinely genderqueer students the confidence to admit to themselves, and to others, that they are genderqueer, without feeling any shame over something which is perfectly natural. Being genderqueer is natural in the same way having green eyes is natural. Uncommon, yes, but not a chosen thing.
If we rephrase the Pope's wording to reflect what the Biology is telling us it would read "children are being taught in schools that gender is something you're born with". And who could possibly object to teaching children that?
His Holiness, Pope Francis: cruxnow
An Important Disclaimer
Right now, transgender issues are coming out of the closet. We’re living through an unprecedented cultural shift in the Western world as the T of LGBT is given more coverage in the media since ever. It’s an important and fascinating discussion. Two things I need to clear up though.
First, as always, I ask you to keep an open mind. By all means disagree, challenge and question what I say. I’m not afraid of disagreement but if you’ve already made your mind up about transgender issues and nothing could alter your view, there’s no reason for you to read this.
Second, I need to clarify why I don’t consider this to be an “inappropriate” topic to post about. I am well aware that a lot of people read my blogs and I have a responsibility to make sure my writing is always family-friendly. That’s why my blogs are free of things like swearing. The topic of transgenderism however, is Biology and, as part of Biology we have to discuss the fact that men and women are anatomically different.
Young people today are growing up in a different world to the one their parents grew up in. Transgender issues are not in the shadows anymore; children hear the words, see the coverage and they have a lot of questions. It’s not my job to persuade people what to think. But it is my job to present people with facts and let them make their own minds up about the implications.
As I’ve said before, young people are quite capable of disagreeing with something they hear. Besides, if we want people to grow up with the ability to discuss things sensibly, we need to encourage debate and discussion.
Let’s also be frank: some people reading this may be dealing with transgender issues themselves. The last thing you want to do is refuse to let anyone talk about it because it’s “not polite”. It's a complicated topic sure, and definitely one that people argue over, but it's one that does need to be discussed as part of modern Science. Which is why, as a Science writer, I'm doing so.
Transgender isn’t a dirty word and it shouldn’t be something we’re afraid of. It's a Biology word and ought to be discussed in that context. However, it is still considered a controversial subject by many, so I need to make this absolutely clear:
I am writing to explore the Science of gender and what I post here does not necessarily represent OR disagree with the views of any institution I am associated with. I am writing about facts, from my own curiosity and a desire to explore Biological complexity. It must be taken in this context only.
So, with that in mind...
Walking the Line
I got the idea to write this article several months ago when I came across the online blogs of Michael Brown (stream.org). Some of his blogs have titles like “Why LGBT’s war on gender must be resisted” and “it’s time to stand up to transgender activism”. It’s tempting to switch off when you read his words, but there is a theme to his writing. A theme I happen to agree with: wanting to be something doesn’t make you that thing.
He actually seems fine with transgenderism incidentally because he considers it “real”. He talks about “the rare few” who suffer from being born in the wrong body but thinks the trans community is pushing things too far by introducing a lot of complicated sex and gender terms. Things like genderqueer, genderfluid, cisgender, bigender, third gender etc. etc. This, he argues, is “cultural insanity”.
After all, if a five foot person “identifies” as being six feet tall, this doesn’t make them taller. Brown is correct that we need to accept reality and can’t change what’s true by wanting it. Sure, you have a right to believe whatever you want but as a member of the human race you also have a responsibility (just as important) to believe what is true.
As I’ve said before and will undoubtedly say again: reality isn’t a choice. If it’s sunny you don’t get to believe it’s raining. Reality forces you to a conclusion whether you like it or not. It’s harsh but it’s the Scientific method and it’s the best thing we’ve got.
Opinions and gut feelings should never be the guiding light on deciding what’s true. So, let’s take Michael Brown at his word and decide that yes ok, a line should be drawn and that line ought to be reality. If a person claims to be an aeroplane, that doesn’t make them an aeroplane.
This doesn’t make us intolerant by the way. Being tolerant is not the same as agreeing to everything. Ultimately 2 + 2 = 4 and while a person is allowed to say 2 + 2 = 5 there is no reason you have to accept it.
Facts are facts and they can only be challenged with evidence, not opinion.
You could argue that if a person wants to identify as a different sex then this is basically fine and why should it even be important? We have to be honest though, transgender rights are complicated and there’s a potential minefield of morality to navigate. These are NOT easy questions and they are certainly not questions Science can answer. What Science can do, however, is help people make informed decisions by trying to establish what the facts really are. The last thing we should do is make snap judgements.
Michael Brown’s “where do we draw the line?” question does need to be discussed. So, let’s do it. How many of these gender and sex identities are “real” phenomena and how many are just people wanting to be something else?
The Wisdom of Children
When I was a child here’s basically what I thought I knew: there are girls and there are boys which is 99.99999% of the population. Then, there was a tiny, microscopic, insanely rare number of people who thought they were born in the wrong body.
These people often wanted to get operations to change their bodies but a lot of them lived to regret it. There was even some debate as to whether it was a real condition or whether they were making it up.
Most of these “transsexuals” (as they were called) were mentally ill and this desire to switch gender was a side-effect of the mental illness. But it didn’t really matter because “transsexuals” were so rare I wasn’t likely to ever meet one.
It’s possibly the school I went to, but transgender issues weren’t talked about in the open and on the occasions they did get mentioned they were treated as a taboo playground joke: “your mum’s a tranny lol”.
This is what I was led to believe, so I understand, I really do, that it can be a shock or surprise when you come across the absolute rainbow of genders and sexes the trans community talks about today. It’s a normal human reaction to go “nope” when presented with something that challenges a deeply held belief, especially one we learn in childhood.
The idea of “boys and girls” is one of the first, most fundamental things we learn about. If someone told me there’s a whole new bunch of colours for instance and I had to learn all the names, I’d balk at the suggestion.
But, to be a Scientist means keeping an open mind to the possibility that our childhood convictions (even things which seem obvious) may have been over-simplified or downright wrong.
For example, when we’re young we assume that all stars in the night sky are the same type of thing. They certainly look that way. When we discover there are actually dozens of different varieties of star throughout the cosmos, we don’t put fingers in our ears and say “well that’s just getting silly”. We accept that things are more subtle and nuanced than we previously thought.
Why should gender identity be any different? After all, the principles governing star formation are relatively simple compared to the complexity of a human brain. 86 billion neurons with trillions of connections between them? It would be surprising if all human brains fitted into simple categories.
All the colours of the Genderbow
I remember once asking a friend of mine who was a member of the LGBT society at University what happened at their group meetings. She said, half-jokingly, “we sit around arguing about what all the different words mean”. To add to her point, the society later changed its name to the LGBTQ society, and then to LGBTQA.
Consider the words of Cory McCloskey of the Fox 10 news channel who, after hearing a report about a transgender woman responded live on air: “What is a Transgender woman, what does that even mean now? I can’t even keep up any more!” Although it’s easy to mock him, he really does speak on behalf of many people.
This feeling of confusion is not uncommon. And, if I’m honest, the first time I came across all these words I probably raised an eyebrow myself.
However, and this is important, whether you’re a member of the trans community or not, this discussion is important and society needs to be aware of the terminology. Yes, it’s different to what you learnt in primary school, but suck it up. Simply saying “well that’s a lot of words to learn” isn’t a very meaningful point. It’s important to find out what the trans community wants to be called.
At the moment this can be difficult however because we’re in a period of linguistic turmoil and the words are up for grabs. The LGBT community is still figuring things out, deciding terminology as it goes and, as a result, some words mean different things to different people.
I don’t want to offend or upset anyone from the trans community so first I’m going to explain what the different words mean as I understand them. This might also be useful for you the reader if you’re new to the topic.
Below are some generally accepted definitions, but let’s be clear - some trans people will disagree with my definitions and find these words unpleasant, even hurtful. But, I need to agree on words to use and it’s impossible to please everyone. So I’m going to do my best, please be patient if I say things you don’t like.
Sex: Your anatomical and biological body. Man or woman. This is the thing a doctor can identify by looking at you the moment you’re born.
Intersex: When your body is not clearly man or woman, or has features of both. The old-fashioned term was “hermaphrodite” but that word isn’t used anymore because it’s rather cold and clinical. Don’t use it unless you’re in Biology class talking about garden worms.
Gender: What you internally feel you are. Male or female. This is your personal sense of identity, the way you would classify your mind.
Cisgender: A person whose gender matches their sex i.e. a male gender in a man’s body. (I’ve heard people objecting to this word, saying it’s silly to have a word to define what is the most common position, but we have the word “heterosexual” to refer to the most common position, so let’s accept this one too.)
Transgender: A person whose gender does not match their sex. The simplest way of describing this is the idea of being “trapped in the wrong type of body”. The old fashioned word for this was “transsexual” but that word has also fallen from favour, so don’t use it (unless you’re watching or performing in The Rocky Horror Show). A transgender woman is someone who was born in the body of a man but considers themselves female.
Bigender: People who feel they have characteristics of both genders. The gender-equivalent of intersex. These people feel partly male and partly female and not necessarily in a 50:50 ratio. Richard O’Brien himself (the author of Rocky Horror) stated in an interview that he considers himself 70% male and 30% female.
Agender: People who feel they are lacking in a gender, that they are neither male nor female.
Third Gender: This one is a little difficult for many people to imagine, but these people feel they have a gender (so they’re not agender) but it isn’t male or female. If you imagine blue = male, red = female, then bigender would be purple, agender would be black and third gender might be something like green, not fitting on the same scale.
Gender Fluid: People whose gender identity is not constant i.e. they can be male for one week, female the next, moving back and forth along the spectrum, perhaps even being agendered or bigendered in between.
Sexuality: This refers to who you are attracted to. This is where words like heterosexual, homosexual and bisexual come into play. Although there is still a bit of confusion. After all, does your sexuality refer to the sex you’re attracted to or the gender? Fortunately, this isn’t the issue we’re talking about in the blog, so I’ll leave sexuality there for now.
Queer: While this word used to be a derogatory word for gay it has now been reclaimed as a term for the entire buffet of genders, sexes and sexualities. Anyone who isn’t cisgendered heterosexual is “queer”.
Genderqueer: A subsection of the queer community concerned with all the non cis-genders: trans, bi, a-, fluid etc. It’s ignoring the issue of sexuality. It is, in fact, the focus of this blog.
Transition: A genderqueer person will often go through a process of making the world aware of their genderqueer identity, and deciding how to express it themselves. This is called the transition and it is different for everyone. For some people it can be a name change, for some it can involve surgery to change sex. Some genderqueer people wish to advertise and celebrate their transition, others do not.
Trans: A casual word for someone who is transgendered. The same way you might use “gay” to refer to “homosexual”, it’s a more relaxed, informal and less clinical term.
Tranny: An insulting term for someone who is trans. Like calling a gay person a “fag”. Don’t use it.
Cross-dressers: This term often gets lumped in with the others because the term used to be “transvestite”. It refers to a man who wears clothes typically associated with women i.e. dresses and skirts.
Ally: A non-queer person who supports genderqueer rights i.e. they are cisgendered themselves, but support the genderqueer movement.
Yes, there’s a lot to take in there (and this is actually an incomplete list). But it takes a couple of days to start getting your terms right. It only seems like a headache if you decide it’s overwhelming. Occasionally you'll slip up, as with learning any new lingo, but it's really worth making the effort. And when it comes to pronouns ("he" or "she") there's a simple rule to find out which you should use: whatever the transgender person asks you to use!
I have, much to my embarassment, occasionally used the wrong pronoun when talking to a transgender student. I've always been grateful when they've shrugged it off and said "don't worry about it", because I know it is actually quite a big deal to them. So thank you to all the transgender people who are patient with us cisgendered people as we do our best to keep up.
Is being genderqueer an illness?
Whether you want to call being genderqueer a medical condition/illness is difficult because some genderqueer people, understandably, do not like the implication there is something “wrong” with them. The suggestion is that only normal, cisgendered people are “right” and anything else needs to be corrected.
I’m not sure where I fall on the issue. Neither is the genderqueer community, incidentally. Some genderqueer people end up suffering from depression and would describe being genderqueer as something which makes them unhappy.
There is, after all, a medical condition called “body dysmorphia” in which a person feels a sense of discomfort/dissatisfaction/disliking of their anatomy. This isn’t referring to the feeling everyone gets when they look in the mirror and think “I look awful”, this is referring to the feeling that your body is not what it’s supposed to be.
Understandably a lot of genderqueer people suffer from body dysmorphia but it’s worth mentioning that some do not and are perfectly at east with being female in the body of a man etc.
Some would argue that a lot of the depression felt by genderqueer people is a result of social stigma and bullying, while others say it arises from the brain knowing it doesn’t match its own body.
A female person born in a man’s body is, understandably, going to feel out of place in her own skin so perhaps this does need to be called an illness, because it causes suffering.
On the other hand, perhaps the only reason a female person in a man’s body feels unhappy is because we tell children that men are male and women are female, so a transgender person feels they are conflicting with what they are taught they “should” be. It’s a tough one to call and I’m hesitant to cast my lot one way or the other.
What’s a lot easier to answer is whether these things are real. The answer, as it turns out, is very much yes.
As surprising as this may be, and difficult for some to swallow, it does seem to be the case that all these genderqueer identities are biologically “real” and need to be treated as such. In fact, according to many Scientists who study sex and gender, the idea of a simple dichotomy is enormously misleading even though it’s familiar (imagine that, a familiar idea turning out to be wrong).
In 2015, the Scientific journal nature ran a whole issue dedicated to these issues and found that society is actually quite behind the times. If you want a neat summary of the issues look up the flagship article by Claire Ainsworth (18th February 2015).
While culture in the West might want to push everyone toward two sexes and two genders, the Biology is saying “not really” and always has done. Let’s take a brief look at some of the main genderqueer phenomena.
Being intersex means the person has biological features of both sexes and there are five main ways this can happen. 1) X and Y chromosomes being mixed up, 2) hormone levels corresponding to more than one sex, 3) internal organs e.g. uterus and prostate, 4) external genitals, 5) gonads (testes and ovaries). Some people have a mixture of these features and there isn’t really a debate about whether it exists.
I mean, technically speaking, the reason men have nipples is because babies start off with far less obvious sex features and the man/woman thing only gets decided later.
The gonads of a baby stay where they are for female, but drop down for male. The vagina remains open for a female baby and closes for a male, forming the scrotum (which is why the scrotum has a dividing line in it). So, in a sense, everyone has what are called “spandral” features of the other sex. Is it possible to have a human born with these features not clearly formed one way or the other, or to have both? Of course it is.
Intersex people are easily identified by medical scans and people with more than one external set of genitals have been known about since at least the first Century B.C. Intersex isn’t controversial and it’s absolutely real.
In 1995 Jiang-Ning Zhou showed that a particular region of the brain - the central subdivision of the bed nucleus of the stria terminals (BSTc for short) - is large for men and small for women.
What’s really interesting is that Zhou discovered transgender women (i.e. people who identify as female) have a BSTc which matches that of a cisgender woman. And vice-versa for men. In other words, your gender is determined by the size of your BSTc, and some people’s BSTc size doesn’t match their anatomy.
In 2002 Wilson Chung found similar results and in 2004 so did Dick Swaab, as did Alicia Garcia-Falgueras in 2006. There is some controversy about these findings and it doesn’t explain everything (for instance, how transgender people often know they are transgender from an early age, before the neurological difference is significant) but that’s a lot of compelling evidence pointing in a similar direction.
Also consider the 2013 research by Milton Diamond who compared identical twins one of whom was transgender, with fraternal twins one of whom was transgender.
Identical twins will share an upbringing/environment and genetic material, while fraternal twins share upbringing/environment only. These kinds of studies (called “twin studies”) can often be useful in finding out how much of a certain trait is genetically influenced.
Diamond found that in the identical twins, if one of the twins was transgender then the other twin was transgender 33% of the time. By contrast, in the fraternal twin set, 2.6% of the sets (actually a single set of twins) were both transgender. In other words, being genetically closer to someone transgender makes you more likely to be transgender than if you simply share an environment. Meaning transgenderism is affected by your Biology, not your environment.
The precise cause and effect of transgenderism is still not known conclusively, but the evidence does seem to be piling up. It is a real thing and transgender people aren’t choosing it. It is who they are and it might even turn out to be something as simple as the size of one particular brain region.
There’s also the fact that transgender people who transition are often a lot happier after the process than before (which is the opposite of what you’d expect if it was made up).
You might have been told that most transgender people live to regret their transition and that most transgender people have a history of mental illness prior to coming out as transgender. Actually, this is the complete opposite of reality.
In 2014 Annelou de Vries analysed the psychiatric health of transgender people who had been given puberty blockers at age 13 and surgery at 20, finding that every single one of them was just as mentally healthy as cisgendered people. In other words, transgenderism doesn’t seem to be a “side effect of being mentally ill” as some think, it’s possible to be perfectly sane, not suffering from any psychiatric illness, and also be born in the wrong body.
Furthermore, Annika Johanson (2009) found that 95% of transgender people are happier after the transition. Murad (2010) and Ainsworth (2011) found the same result. Pfafflin (2003), Kuiper (1998), Junge (1998), Smith (2005), Dhenjne (2014), Krege (2001) and De Cuypere (2006) also found that the number of transgender people who were happier after the transition ranged from 96-100%.
In other words, the idea of the “misguided teen who thinks they’re transgender and regrets the decision later in life” is astonishingly rare. The overwhelming majority of people who identify as transgender are a lot more happy once they’ve transitioned. Transgederism is very real.
Little research has been done on this topic specifically but it’s well known that the BSTc doesn’t come in two sizes only. It can be somewhere in between. What this means is that a person whose BSTc is halfway between male and female will quite plausibly feel they have features of both genders.
The BSTc can develop on a spectrum of sizes, meaning you would expect humans to come in a full range of genders from super-girly female to mega-masculine male. And, of course, we do!
In fact, just an out-there hypothesis, perhaps subtle distinctions in the size of your BTSc might explain why some men are ultra-male, masculine alpha types while some men have a lot of effeminate features but still consider themselves male. Being transgender or bigender doesn't immediately put you in a simple box. You can be a transgender man (anatomically a woman) and still be quite a feminine man. There's a lot of complex things which determine your gender so it's no surprise there's a lot of scope for variation.
I, for instance, am not a raging ultra-sport-playing hyper man. In fact, some of my personality traits could be described as a bit feminine (I cry at movies really badly for instance).
Perhaps my BTSc is 99% toward the male end of the spectrum (which is why I feel I’m definitely male) but I’m not one of the ultra masculine guys like a fireman, a builder, a cop, a biker, a sailor or a cowboy.
This one is particularly interesting and although it’s a new field, the picture emerging seems to be that genderfluidity is a real thing as well.
The medical term used is “alternating gender incongruity”, a term coined by V.S. Ramachandran, who has shown that in some people the hemispheres of the brain can switch their roles back and forth, which leads to changes in personality or thinking patterns, most likely including gender.
The brain’s ability to rewire itself spontaneously and at random is well known. People suffering from bipolar disorder for instance find themselves with two different brains at different times in their life. People with seasonal affective disorder find their serotonin levels dropping in the winter and so on.
In fairness, the jury is still out on this but given the fact that everything else about people’s brains has been known to switch back and forth, it would be astonishing if the only thing which never alternated was gender.
There is, at the time of writing, no available research I can find on this topic. So I shall have to stick with Scientific honesty and say I don’t know about this one.
It seems as though a lot of people objecting to all the “new” genders are objecting on exactly that basis. These genders weren’t around 40 years ago, so where have they suddenly come from?
Well, actually to say the idea of a third gender is a recent invention is wildly inaccurate. In fact, 20th Century Western cultures seem to be rather closed-off in terms of third gender concepts, while much of the rest of the world has known about them for a long time.
In Sumerian stories (ranging back 7,000 years) there are references to a third gender. Same thing can be found in ancient Egypt (4,000 years ago) ancient Greece (2,000 years ago) and so on. In fact, many ancient cultures outside of the Mesopotamian basin don’t seem to make the male/female distinction.
In present day Philippines, Thailand, Pakistan, Nepal, Japan and India, there is fairly common public acceptance that there is a third gender. Less common than the other two, but hardly non-existent.
The rest of the animal kingdom is also quite open to the idea. Joan Roughgarden, although a controversial figure, has argued that because sex comes in two main categories for humans, this makes a lot of people assume there are only two genders, but actually there could be dozens more we simply aren’t aware of.
Granted, there’s not a lot of human Biological research yet on third-genderism but it does seem as though this is quite a common gender-identity and not a new one at all.
How common is it?
Remember earlier I said that everyone assumes these things are rare? Well they are, but nowhere near as much as you might think.
It’s hard to get solid numbers on this because people may not want to identify publicly as genderqueer, but the available stats look something like this...
Around 1-2% of people are born intersex (M. Blackless March 2000 American Journal of Human Biology). Think about that. The average person knows around 600 other people. That means potentially twelve of the people you know are intersex. It’s uncommon sure, but it’s not 1 in a million. Chances are you know a dozen intersex people and a lot of them probably aren’t open about it.
Transgenderism is a bit harder to count as there aren’t clear figures but most sources I’ve checked estimate the number to be somewhere around 0.2% of the population. In other words, 1 in every 500 people. So, again, assuming you know 600 people the chances are you know somebody who is transgender.
Meanwhile other non-binary genders are (according to practicalandrogyny.com) common to around 0.4% of the population. In other words, 1 in every 250 people. So you probably know two or three people who identify as genderfluid or third gender.
In a school of 1,700 students for example, statistically there will be approximately three transgender pupils, around seven genderfluid/agender/third gender and somewhere between 17 and 34 intersex pupils (that’s an entire class).
If you’re carrying around the assumption that genderqueer people are extremely rare you might need to think again. The reason you probably haven’t realised the numbers are this high is because a) it’s only very recently that genderqueer people have felt cautiously comfortable expressing it, b) a lot of people are still discriminated against, so they never say anything and c) it’s not really anyone else’s business.
Transgender people aren’t required to wear a sign, so the transgender people you know...there’s a good chance you don’t even know about it. But genderqueer people are not made up, they’re not making their identity up, they are real and you probably know several.
“Oh, it’s just a phase”
Some people go through a period of self-uncertainty and identity crisis. Adolescence is a particularly biologically complicated process, during which the brain changes significantly. Is it possible that some people who identify as transgender in their teens will grow out of it later on? Well, yes.
This is one of the reasons medical organisations don’t just immediately give sex-change surgery to anyone who comes along asking for it, particularly when they’re young. As we said earlier, some people do get it wrong.
Many people would argue however: so what? If a person does think they’re a different gender and then change their mind, is that such a big deal? Besides, even if it does turn out to be a phase, this doesn’t mean they were making it up! As we’ve seen, it’s possible for the brain to switch genders on occasion, which means an anatomical boy might temporarily have a female brain which then settles back to male later on. Going through a phase doesn’t mean they’re doing it for attention. It could be a biological phase they can’t help, like going through a phase when their skin is really bad.
As a Scientist you have to keep your mind open and wait until the facts are in and a clear picture emerges. If someone tells you they’re genderqueer, why jump to the conclusion it’s a phase and they’re making a mistake? Why not give them time to find out? After all, if it’s a phase they’ll grow out of it without you telling them they need to. If you want a powerful and tragic example of what can happen when you force someone to be a gender they are not, look up the story of David Reimer.
I went to school with a very unusual boy. He was an attention seeker in ways you can’t even imagine. And not just because he wanted people to listen to his opinion, he wanted to be different.
Sometimes I like people to pay attention to me - of course I do, I think the things I say are interesting, otherwise I wouldn’t say them! - but this boy didn’t just want attention sometimes, he couldn’t survive without it. He also liked to be the victim, liked to be the outsider. Some people’s sense of identity is just like that.
Several years later I found out he was no longer a "he" and was in the process of transitioning to become a transgender woman. One of two things are possible here: either she had been transgender all along (which perhaps accounted for her sense of being an outsider) or she was faking it completely as her latest attempt to garner attention from people who were getting bored of her usual antics.
I don’t know the answer. As we’ve discovered, a small percentage of the genderqueer community really are making a mistake. Even some genderqueer people are critical of other people who are, quite probably “faking it”.
What I do know is that the percentage of fakers is pretty low. If you meet someone who is genderqueer, the chances are more likely they are genuine because only a very small percentage of genderqueer people are self-deluded. So if you’ve already met a genderqueer person (one in a few hundred) there is at the lowest estimate a 95% chance they’re the real thing. Perhaps you ought to take them seriously, it’s statistically sensible to do so.
How do you know?
As a cisgender person I often find it difficult to imagine how a genderqueer person knows they’re genderqueer. I suppose the idea is so alien to me, so different to my own experience, that I can’t help but wonder “how did you know?”
Some genderqueer people claim to have known since early childhood while others began to realise during adolescence. It’s different for everyone, the same as sexuality. As someone who’s not genderqueer I have no reference , but that is 100% my point. Because I’m happily male in a man’s body I’ve never had an inkling in my mind that I’m in the wrong body. The very fact I find it hard to identify with genderqueer people is because I am cisgendered.
I’ve never wondered about my gender identity and I’m so confident that I’m male in a man’s body, the very thought of being trans is unimaginable to me. So maybe that’s a good reason to trust a genderqueer person: I’m so confident of my own gender/sex identity it would take something incredibly powerful to make me question it. I’d have to be pretty convinced something was up. Well, maybe, that’s what it is to be a genderqueer person.
Maybe these people aren’t just casually coming to the conclusion they are genderqueer. Maybe the only thing which would make a genderqueer person identify as genderqueer is if they actually are.
As a teenager I was far from happy. I’d never repeat my adolescent years if you paid me and, aside from a few wonderful friends who stuck by me, I was utterly miserable for a long time (by the way, don’t worry about me, I’m doing great now!)
Thing is, I would have given anything to change who I was and many other teenagers feel the same today. But I never questioned my gender. I was unhappy and didn’t like who/what I was, but I knew I was an unhappy boy. Transgender people aren’t just unhappy with themselves and want to be different. They are transgender, irrespective of their happiness or unhappiness.
Transgender people aren’t “unsure of their gender”. They are the exact opposite. They are absolutely sure of it, that’s the whole point! As a cisgender person I never get unsure about my genders, why assume genderqueer people are doing it?
Does Science support transgender rights?
Science shows, pretty clearly, that genderqueer phenomena are real. It’s not a side-effect of mental illness either; transgender people are typically as mentally healthy as anyone else. They’re also not faking it or self-deluding. It’s not a choice, it’s not a lifestyle and it’s not something you can be persuaded out of. It’s the way you are. And it’s also not as rare as you might have thought.
Yes it can be daunting to hear about all these things we aren’t usually told in school, but this is just the way nature is. If you don’t like it, find another Universe! Genderqueer people are here, they are queer, and you have to get used to it.
Science doesn’t make moral comments however, it simply shows what the truth is. So Science doesn’t technically support or un-support transgender rights. It shows that they’re real considerations and it’s now a moral question: how should we treat people who are biologically different to the norm? Although really, the answer to that should be obvious.
I would especially like to thank Lu Mather for his advice, consulting and editing of the blog. He helped me with terminology, tone and even my terrible grammar.
Trans symbol: wikimedia
Anti-trans guy: theatlantic
Ben Melzer: stuff
Richard O'Brien: thumbs
Intersex group: Oii
Nail in the coffin: tryredemption
Trans flag: Wikimedia
At the weekend I went to see the new Ghostbusters film directed by Paul Feig. It’s being criticised in a strangely aggressive way by a lot of people online. I have a suspicion why, but I won’t get too bogged down in that.
So let’s just put my cards on the table from the start: I absolutely loved it. I’m a big fan of the original, so obviously my expectations were demanding, but I thought the remake stood up very favourably. I found it funny and unpredictable, full of well-rounded characters, good acting and a few surprisingly touching moments. A sequel’s pretty unlikely given the fan reaction, but I would pay to see it in an undead heartbeat.
Obviously my blog isn’t about movie reviews though, so why bring it up? Well, it gave me a lot to think about, particularly regarding the way fictional Scientists are portrayed in the media. Last week I wrote about Science being accurately depicted in Sci-fi media and I have to say Ghostbusters was a pleasant surprise on this front as well.
The main characters are Scientists and although there’s a bit of “techno-babble to make the plot work”, a lot of the Science is pretty decent. It’s peppered with little touches like having genuine quantum mechanics equations in the background, characters getting the names of particles right and references to proposed technologies which provide subtle nods for the sci-geeks in the audience.
So let’s also address the elephant in the room.
Yes. The working title was originally going to be Ghostbusters 3: This time they're women! So, yeah, the ghostbusters are girls now. Horror! Run for the hills!!
As I’ve said before we need a big push on female Scientists in movies and making sure they aren’t just pretty damsels for the hero men to rescue. Ghostbusters hits another home run here because all the main characters are bold, non-sexualised and consistently funny. In fact, one of the film’s running gags is to have Chris Hemsworth as a gorgeous but stupid, gratuitously shirtless slice of man-candy who gets possessed and needs rescuing. Honestly, if there was something strange in the neighborhood I'd definitely be fine calling the new ghostbusters.
Now, before I get slaughtered I know there’s a lot of made up stuff in the film alongside the genuine science. The way I see it though, a film about people hunting ghosts with laser-hoses obviously isn’t going for hard-nosed accuracy, so it’s just an added bonus when they manage to get some real Science in there. Besides, it’s rather hard to have a Ghostbusters movie if you don’t allow the existence of ghosts. The really nice thing about the script is the way it handles scientific skepticism toward mystical claims.
Ley-lines, ectoplasm and…well…ghosts themselves are not currently accepted by the Scientific community. I’ll be open about it, I don’t believe in ghosts. But that doesn’t mean I outright reject their existence. I’m open to the possibility that ghosts could be real, but you need to give me some evidence first. After all, a Scientist is prepared to believe anything - no matter how ridiculous - if there’s evidence.
Ghostbusters acknowledges this in the first act through Kirsten Wiig’s protagonist. She’s a skeptic who doesn’t believe in ghosts and thinks discussing them is pointless because they’re non-falsifiable. She gives a pretty good speech about the importance of testing a claim and refuses to believe in the supernatural...even though she desperately and secretly wants to. This subtlety of optimistic skepticism is lost so often it’s painful. So Ghostbusters deserves a round of applause for distinguishing between “wanting to believe” and “actually believing”!
What’s even better is that as soon as she witnesses a real life ghost she changes her mind. Scientists aren’t afraid to admit when they get something wrong and Wiig’s character isn’t punished for being skeptical. Nor is Melissa McCarthy’s character obnoxious when her hunch is proven right. She doesn’t shout “I told you so!” in Wiig’s face because Wiig is just as excited to be proven wrong. They both had guesses about the world and they only made a decision once the evidence was in.
So it comes out flying in terms of depicting skepticism and women in STEM. The other thing I liked about it was the way it subtly deconstructs the image of the “mad Scientist”, a stereotype we’re seeing less and less these days.
I remember once posing for a series of photographs to promote my school Chemistry department. The photographer wanted me to ruffle my hair up, pull a goofy grin, put on a lab-coat and cackle like “a mad Scientist”. I got a bit uncomfortable and sort of refused. I know she wasn’t trying to strike a nerve but the mad Scientist stereotype irks me.
For one thing, it’s getting to be a little bit out of date now. Jerry Lewis’ Nutty Professor came out in 1963 and when was the last time a horror movie relied on some lunatic in a castle screaming “it’s alive!” Even the recent Victor Frankenstein film starring James McAvoy puts an emphasis on humanising the character, returning him to the enthusiastic, if hubristic, genius of the novel.
The general public are starting to recognise that Scientists aren’t actually maniacs and that a lot of them are surprisingly normal people. The “mad Scientist” image has now become a cliché that people are getting wise to. It’s not dead yet, but with popular-Science shows entering a renaissance on TV, people are seeing Scientists for what they really are: passionate and dedicated, but hardly “mad”.
I wear a white labcoat sometimes because it’s sensible. It protects my body and the white colour makes it easy to see if I’ve spilled something. But I only wear it when I’m doing practical work that involves potential spill-risk. Most of my lab research was done on computers, so in my University days I wore normal clothes and sat at a desk...sorry to disappoint you. Although I probably should mention I did a lot of my research at night, dressed in a hooded cloak. I am actually being serious there. It was warm, comfortable and the computer lab was cold. Deal with it jarhead.
Now, as a teacher I happen to wear bow-ties for the simple reason that I like them. From a purely practical reason they’re also easier to tie and they don’t dangle into your reaction, so they might even be safer than standard ties (perhaps that’s why Chemists used to wear them a lot). I know they’re seen as a little old-fashioned and goofy, but I don’t really care. I wear bow-ties because I like bow-ties, not because it’s “mad Scientist uniform”.
But, let’s be honest, Scientists are sometimes massively weird or socially backward. I myself have been described as eccentric and although I’m not 100% sure what I do which makes me “odd”, people usually don't mean any insult bt it. In a way it’s a bit of a compliment. To quote my dad: “who’d want to be normal, normal people are boring?”
Yes, Science does attract some slightly quirky people and a lot of the great Scientists of history had bizarre quirks (looking in your direction Tesla), but I struggle to think of a famous Scientist who genuinely belonged inside a psychiatric hospital rather than the laboratory.
A madman is one who doesn’t have a grip on reality or doesn’t understand the implications of his actions. Scientists are, ironically, the polar opposite of this. Scientists dedicate their lives to distinguishing reality from fantasy. We spend our days analysing, discussing and thinking about what the world is really like and how everything ticks. Scientists are concerned with rational thought, clear arguments and logic. We are anything but mad. Even when it looks like we are.
Consider Sergei Brukhonenko, a Russian man often described as a “mad scientist”. The experiment he’s most famous for was decapitating dogs and trying to keep the heads and bodies alive separately. This does sound like typical mad Scientist territory, but what’s rarely mentioned is why he was doing it. He was basically inventing the world’s first heart-and-lung machines in order to help victims of violent accidents. He was also trying to see if he could keep living tissue alive in order to give surgeons a better chance at carrying out transplants.
Scientists inevitably have to do unusual things because they’re in the business of discovery and by definition discovery = new = unfamiliar = strange. So, yes, Scientists and their experiments can come across as weird, but there’s always a purpose to them. Scientists don’t spend their lives trying to get things to explode, fizz and bubble (most of the time this is a sign something has gone very wrong) and we aren’t wildly trying to discover things without caring about the consequences, the consequences of our research are the very reason we do it in the first place!
Ghostbusters does well on this issue too because all the Scientists in the film are different characters. The villain is a vaguely “mad Scientist” type it’s true, but he’s not mad because he’s a Scientist, he’s mad because he’s a victim of bullying. As it turns out, so are the two main characters, but they decide to use Science to overcome cruelty. In other words, the film is more a commentary on how different people use Science depending on what they already are rather than saying “Science makes you evil.”
The major highlight of the film however was the comedy-relief character played by Kate McKinnon. Dr. Jillian Holtzmann, the group’s engineer and nuclear physicist, is a larger-than-life, intellectually brilliant and utterly bizarre woman. She dances with blow-torches in her hands, sings during moments of heightened tension and seems more interested in making silly jokes than engaging in the serious debates everyone else is having. She was absolutely awesome.
Not only was she the funniest thing in the film, she was confident and full of enthusiasm for what she did. But, and this is the key point, all that was beside the point because she was a clear thinker when it came to understanding the principles of Science, she just didn’t particularly care for rules of “the social norm”.
She’s the kind of person you’d want to get trapped on a crashing airplane with, mainly because nothing got her down (pun of the day). Her love of Science was her motivation, and she remained upbeat at all times…who cares if other people found her a bit odd.
She also gets a genuinely heartfelt speech toward the end about the place Science has in the world and what it means to be a human being studying it. It’s a wonderful reminder that Scientists are doing Science because they believe in the human race and that we usually tend to care about the people we love. I know right, Imagine that?
Scientists feel compassion, Scientists feel empathy and Scientists often deal with being social outcasts, perhaps that's why we don't care whether people find us normal or not. We were the nerds in school, the people who never quite fit in, so once we grew up we were used to people finding us strange. What else is new?
But Scientists aren’t mad. We are, if anything, committed to sanity above all else. We just like to sing at inappropriate moments and wear bow-ties or hooded cloaks.
If you’ve seen the Michael Bay movie Armageddon you know what bad Science in cinema looks like. Asteroid headed for Earth? Send oil-drillers to nuke it. It might therefore come as a shock to learn that NASA uses the film as part of their training and interview procedures. No, seriously.
But don’t panic. The reason NASA owns a copy of Armageddon is because it's a test. Armageddon contains 168 scientific impossibilities and NASA employees are challenged to spot as many as they can.
That’s actually impressive when you think about it. Armageddon is 151 minutes long, which means every 54 seconds someone says or does something which utterly disregards reality. Armageddon may in fact be the least Scientifically accurate movie of all time, and I absolutely love it.
A lot of people might be surprised to learn I have a huge tolerance for Sci-fi movies that get their Science wrong, given how much I advocate Scientific accuracy in real life. The reason is quite simple: Science fiction is just that…fiction.
The job of a movie is to tell a story, entertain, make us think etc. etc. I’d have a problem with a politician manipulating scientific facts, or a doctor doing so because that’s the real world, but a sci-fi movie? It’s a movie. It doesn’t have to be accurate. If people are trying to learn their Science from watching movies then that says more about the quality of Science education than it does about Hollywood.
We still have lots of misconceptions but as Scientific literacy increases (and I think it is) movies are beginning to reflect that. And, just to fight Armageddon’s corner even more, after its release, public awareness of NEOs was heightened because although the film gets the details wrong, the message is right: a NEO could wipe out life on Earth and we need to be ready for it.
In fact, there was such public outcry that the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics (May 21 1998) finally began addressing the issue of space-research and funding in response. There is a slim chance Armageddon may genuinely have contributed to saving the world.
Let’s also not forget how many of today’s Scientists started out as Sci-fi fans. I myself was hooked on Star Wars long before I got hooked on Science. And Return of the Jedi (one of my all-time favourite movies) claims that a group of space teddy-bears can overthrow a military empire who own a plasma-cannon the size of a planet. I know Star Wars and Armageddon get stuff painfully wrong. I don’t care.
These movies don’t pretend to be scientifically accurate. Their purpose is to thrill and entertain. It’s just an added bonus that they encourage speculative thinking…which is often the first steps many people take to becoming a Scientist.
So this isn’t going to be a sneering article about how movies get Science badly wrong. I mean seriously, are there actually people out there who think that after watching Back to the Future they can time travel by driving at 88mph? Come on. People aren’t stupid. I don’t see anything wrong with “shutting your brain off” when watching a Michael Bay film. The problem comes if you continue to shut your brain off during real life. That's when it does matter.
I’m genuinely not one of those people who scoffs and criticises a movie for bad Science (ok, not usually). But I do get really excited when a movie portrays Science right! So I want to take a moment to celebrate and champion some of the Sci-fi books/movies/TV series which help promote Science or get their facts right.
10. Gravity (dir. Alfonso Cuaron)
Although it's a brilliant movie I’m not sure if Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity counts as Science fiction.
Science fiction usually implies fictional Science; that is, a scientific principle/technology which doesn’t yet exist but could theoretically do so. Gravity doesn’t have anything like that because the whole thing is set in the real world. All of the technology in the film exists and everything that happens is more-or-less plausible. But it’s set in space, so let’s go with it. Whatever category it falls into, it’s 9.81 meters per squared second of awesome.
There are a few artistic licenses used (the Hubble space telescope is not at the same altitude as the ISS for instance) but for the most part the only problems with the film are niggles. Niel DeGrasse Tyson did an interesting video with Cinema Sins counting the Physics problems he notices and really, they’re pretty minor.
It’s the little touches which make the film’s accuracy speak volumes though, things like fireballs being perfectly spherical in space, book pages not falling into place, having to spin yourself clockwise to counteract an anticlockwise rotation etc. etc. In this respect Gravity was a powerful educational tool (I use it to demonstrate Newton’s 1st Law of motion and illustrate the importance of centripetal/fugal interactions). It's also, in this writer's opinion, a really well-plotted thriller in which the story is established almost instantly and the tension doesn't stop until the final minute of the film.
9. Star Trek (Movies & several TV series)
I’m being serious here. I know a lot of Star Trek was ridiculous. You can’t really reverse the polarity of the dilithium crystals or beam anyone up, but if you watch Star Trek, either in its TV serial format or the movies, what is very clear is how bang on it gets the philosophy of Science.
The Enterprise’s mission is not to conquer or make money. The opening of every episode goes “Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.” If that isn’t a good description of Scientific motivation I don’t know what is.
In the world of Star Trek the Earth is finally united and money has been abolished. People no longer work for profit or power, but to explore the Universe together as one species among many. Star Trek is about Scientists: people who want to seek out new worlds, to go where nobody else has gone. Yes, fine, the show has a lot of nonsense but what it does show is what humanity could achieve if it took Science seriously. It shows a world united by the desire to learn and connect with the rest of the Universe.
Also, consider the two main characters. The second-most senior person on the ship is Spock…the Science officer. They have a freaking Science officer! There’s a reason so many geeks idolise Spock. He represents something important to us: a Scientist being given respect, being consulted, being given a chance to get involved in decision making. He was a person who ignored emotion and tried to appeal to reason and logic. He wasn’t emotionless (Scientists do feel emotions I promise) but he could bypass his gut-instincts and think problems through with clarity.
And then let's not forget that the star of the show, James T. Kirk (in the original series) was a former Science geek who graduated in the top 5% of his class at Starfleet Academy. The new Chris Pine version, if I’m honest, does a bit of a disservice to the character by making him a sleazy school tearaway. Kirk was always proud of his education and was not a "shoot first, think later" kind of guy. He was well read, well-cultured and understood basic engineering. He just also happened to be a bit of a cocky rogue who was able to talk to women (believe it or not, a lot of Scientists can do this too).
It’s also worth mentioning that although Star Trek makes a lot of stuff up, it very rarely violates a law of Physics. There are instances which are beyond acceptability (radio-waves travelling faster than light, as one of my students recently pointed out to me) but for the most part it gets things pretty close. Teleportation is a real thing. Faster-than-light travel is theoretically possible (currently being investigated by Harold White of NASA) and the list goes on.
It’s silly, it’s camp, it’s crazy and, yes, sadly it’s sometimes unforgivably misogynistic but Star Trek shows what the world would look like if it were run by Scientists and it’s a very, very optimistic world.
8. Avatar (dir. James Cameron)
Again, I’m being serious. While Avatar is probably the most fantastical thing on this list, I think people are too quick to dismiss it. James Cameron (who minored in Physics at University) is a passionate Science enthusiast and dedicated a decade of his life to astro- and marine biology. It’s no surprise that the fictional world of Pandora was made with remarkable attention to biological and geological detail.
After writing the story, Cameron enlisted a small army of Scientists to add clarification to the movie’s backdrop. A lot of it is never mentioned on screen but the world-building of Avatar is unparalleled. There’s not much in the film which doesn’t have a good grounding. The creatures on the planet are based on the insect and marine ecosystems of Earth, the spaceships are designed with genuine features needed to engage in interstellar travel and even the idea of growing an avatar isn’t as far-fetched as you might think.
As the script was fleshed out, a companion book was written alongside it (I own a copy, obviously) which goes into detail about how everything in the Avatar universe works. Everything from the chemical composition of the ground, to the alloy structure of Unobtanium – which is a genuine term used to describe room-temperature superconductors, so laugh all you want, it’s actually the correct term - is carefully thought out. If you wonder why the Na'vi are blue with red blood, there's an answer. How do the avatar mental-link ups work? They've thought of that too.
In fact, the only obvious Scientific problem is why the female Na’vi have breasts seeing as they aren’t mammals. In response to this question, Cameron answered “because this is a movie for humans.”
7. Interstellar (dir. Christopher Nolan)
Lawrence Krauss has publicly described the Physics in this movie as “lousy” and fair enough it does have some ridiculous bits, but I think there’s a lot of good to say about Interstellar. Aside from the fact that it’s written and directed by Christopher Nolan, the film’s main Science advisor was Kip Thorne (one of the world’s three leading experts on Black Hole physics, the other two being Stephen Hawking and Leonard Susskind).
In fact, the Black Hole in Interstellar (pictured above) was so well designed and graphically realised that Thorne actually published a research article on how he was able to create the most accurate Black Hole depiction in history.
The film’s real strength, for me however, is the way it makes physics an integral part of the story because the premise of the film actually requires an understanding of General Relativity. Several scenes are dedicated to discussing (teaching the audience) about the effects of time dilation in order to tell a genuinely unique and unconventional story. Some literary critics have said things like “there are only six stories”, even if that were true (it’s not) Interstellar would make a good case for being a seventh. The story actually doesn’t exist if you take out Relativity and that, to me, is an incredible achievement.
There are some bits which are schmaltzy, like the bit about love transcending dimensions, but the film still says something powerful. Set in a world where lunar conspiracy is taught as fact and the space program has died, it reminds us that exploring the Universe is important because, one way or another, Earth is not eternal. If the human race wants to survive, it’s not an exaggeration to say we need to eventually leave our planet to do so.
Interstellar also showcases Scientists as real people who fall in love, feel anger, fear, betrayal and even vengeance. It’s a story about people trying to make good decisions while also being true to their humanity. Yes, Interstellar has its flaws but it’s a very human film, with very real emotions, that makes theoretical physics relevant.
6. Anathem (Neal Stephenson)
Sci-fi guru and God, Neal Stephenson studied Geography with a minor in physics at University and, as the son of a biochemist and an engineer, Science runs pretty deep in his family. One of his earlier books Cryptonomicon spends a good 50% of the text teaching the reader about how computers were invented and how equations can solve daily puzzles – the story is almost incidental.
For this reason some people find his work a bit difficult (which I fully accept), but if you can stomach it, I recommend you give Anathem a go. It’s a novel set in a parallel Universe where society has been badly broken. The scientifically literate spend their lives inside locked cities while the uneducated roam the world outside. The main characters are Scientist-philosophers and it shows how Scientifically literate people view the world, as well as being a cracking adventure story.
The reason it made my top ten list was because the storyline itself is about quantum mechanics. And I don’t just mean the main characters discuss it or mention it, I mean the storyline itself becomes a meditation on the different interpretations of QM and grasping the basics of the theory is essential to understanding the finale. Never before or since have I encountered a book which made advanced physics an integral part of the storyline, rather than its setting.
It's a dense book, written in a semi-fictional language with technical appendices to explain the math and it stands at over 800 pages long, but if you've got a steely resolve and you aren't afraid of a difficult read it won't let you down.
5. Europa Report (dir. Sebastian Cordero)
I won’t say much about this one because it’s genuinely better if you go in not knowing what to expect. I will say, however, that it’s a criminally unheard-of film. Space.com described it as “one of the most thrilling and realistic depictions of space direction since 2001” and it is well-deserved praise.
It’s a found-footage story about a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa to find evidence of primitive alien life. Europa is indeed our best shot at discovering alien life so this is a far more reasonable premise than you might imagine.
Mixing special effects with genuine footage of space travel, the film’s real strength is not just in how accurately the space physics is depicted but in how the Scientists are portrayed as real people who are commited to discovery.
To give away any more would be spoiling the fun and I suggest you don’t look up a synopsis or even google-image search it. The excitement of the film is in not knowing what's going to happen and the film’s ending is a powerful depiction of what it is to be a Scientist, asking every one of us the same question: how far would you go for knowledge?
4. 2001: A Space Odyssey (dir. Stanley Kubrick/author Arthur C. Clarke)
Arthur C. Clarke's short story The Sentinel was adapted into a film and full-length novel at the same time by both Stanley Kubrick and Clarke himself. 2001: A Space Odyssey the film has become one of the most revered cinematic experiences of all time. The novel is largely forgotten.
A bit of a shame I suppose, but when you compare the two it’s hardly surprising. The novel is a pretty standard hard-sci-fi read, but the film is a majestic, visually assaulting meditation on humanity, technology and God, which gave us the very concept of modern special effects.
Arthur C. Clarke studied Physics and Mathematics at UCL, so it’s no surprise the Science in 2001 holds up extremely well. It was one of the first major Hollywood films to address the fact that space is silent, that there is a time delay between Earth and spaceships, and it rather famously creates artificial gravity in its ships by spinning them, throwing the passengers toward the walls as if toward the floor. It’s also quite prophetic, predicting the existence of space stations, the internet, video conferencing, voice-recognition computers and the basics of A.I.
I know people who can't stand the film and I do understand why. The pace is very slow and there's very little dialogue but, to me, this reflects the grandeur of space and the sheer emptiness of astronomical exploration.
It’s an ambitious film, fusing philosophy with Science and is easily one of the largest-scale films in history (I can only think of a handful of other films which rival it for scope). It’s a film about humanity and our place in the cosmos. It’s inscrutable, eminently re-watchable and filled with clever Science.
3. The Martian (Andy Weir)
After a powerful dust storm hits a research base on Mars, Mark Watney is left stranded and has to use his scientific knowledge to survive. There is some debate as to whether such a dust storm could really happen (I’ve heard arguments on both sides) but even if we decide this bit couldn’t, it’s not difficult to imagine some other reason for Watney to be stranded. Besides, it's just the McGuffin. The story really gets going when Watney realises he’s alone and has to rely on his wits and the scraps of technology he’s been left with.
The story is very simple: bad things happen to Watney and he must use Science to overcome them. And therein lies the brilliance. In the film adapataion by Ridley Scott, there's a rather famous bit where Watney explains “I’m going to Science the s**t out of this”, a quotation so popular even Obama himself repeated it (without the swear word).
The book spends much of its time explaining to the reader how knowledge of botany and chemistry can be used in a survival situation as well as making Science seem pretty badass. Personally, I feel like if I was stranded on another planet, I’d stand a decent chance now.
The sheer creativity of Andy Weir (a computer engineer) in coming up with ways for Watney’s life to constantly fall into danger are matched by the equally clever ways he survives. Every time you think he’s painted himself into a corner, he reveals a trap-hatch you never thought of.
But it’s not just that the story is all about using Science, it’s the fact that Watney is a fantastic character (portrayed perfectly by Matt Damon in the film). He’s charismatic, witty, sarcastic, confident and optimistic. It’s really nice to see a Scientist being portrayed this way, alongside the more conventional math-nerds (because let’s be honest they exist too).
A lot of engineering and Science is about puzzle solving. It’s about coming up with clever ways to change the world and discover what’s going on. Reading this book is the closest thing you can get to reading a botany/chemistry/astrophysics textbook without it being an actual textbook.
2. Sunshine (dir. Danny Boyle)
I saw Sunshine on release with a friend because we were both Danny Boyle fans and it was immediately the kind of film you wanted to discuss. It manages to be everything a good sci-fi story should be: it’s philosophical, it’s speculative, it shows you an unseen world and makes you ask questions about “what if this happened…” I loved the movie from the outset, finding it an edge-of-the-seat thriller as well as a deeply moving character study. Sunshine, like 2001, is best described as artful, rather than just “a good movie”.
But the reason I’ve included Sunshine isn’t its beauty, it’s tight-as-a-drum script by Alex Garland, its surreal visuals or beautiful score. It’s because the way it portrays Science is everything I believe in and try to achieve in my job as a teacher.
Brian Cox (yes, him) was the film’s Scientific advisor and seems to have been listened to for the most part. The premise is that our Sun is deteriorating much sooner than expected (Cox has given a talk on what the reason could be, although it’s never stated in the film) and a group of Scientists must try to re-ignite it. A lot of theoretical physics goes on in the background but it’s never rammed down your throat. There are subtle references to equations and technologies but they don’t bog anything down. More like easter-eggs for nerds.
The best thing about the movie though is what Cox and Garland wanted to achieve. To depict the spirit of Science as a human endeavour, rather than something cold and clinical.
There are quite a few inaccuracies in Sunshine it has to be said. Brian Cox expressed minor annoyance at scenes which reinforce misconceptions about space e.g. bodies freezing instantly or (at one point) a tiny bit of sound. These moments are done for dramatic effect, but Cox has said he was willing to let these things slide because the point of the film wasn’t to get the minute details of astrophysics right, it was to show the glory of Science as a worthy, necessary and rewarding human undertaking. And it does that perfectly.
Alex Garland has described Sunshine as a love-letter to Science, which is the best way to think of it. The most exciting scenes, the most emotionally charged ones, are the ones where the main characters debate evidence, using reason and argument to make their point. They talk and think like Scientists. The whole premise of the film is that without Science the human race will be completely screwed (obviously something I agree with) and it still does something more.
As a Scientist I often hear people saying that I am lacking in “spirituality”. That Science is a heartless enterprise. Sunshine is one of the few works of fiction I know which shows how untrue this is. Sunshine is a film about the spirituality of Science and the profound experiences humans can get through understanding and playing a part in the Universe's drama. For that reason alone, Sunshine deserves a place near the top spot. As a Scientist I feel priviledged to see the beauty of reality and I spend my life trying to show other people what I see. Sunshine is doing the same thing, only much better and with a bigger budget.
1. Contact (Carl Sagan)
Every other entry on this list falls into the category of “gets the Science mostly right, with one or two minor concessions”. Even the really technical ones like The Martian and Gravity which are set firmly in the real world make the occasional fudge.
You might think it would be impossible to tell a gripping story while getting the Science perfect, since the result would just be a non-fiction. There is, however, one book which achieves it . Carl Sagan’s Contact (adapted for the screen by Robert Zemeckis) is, scientifically speaking, flawless.
Isaac Asimov once described Carl Sagan as the cleverest person he’d ever met. Isaac Asimov. The author/editor of over 500 books on topics ranging from Biochemistry to the history of the bible thought Carl Sagan was the more intelligent guy.
Carl Sagan is one of my personal heroes and one of the finest Science popularisers the world has ever had the pleasure of experiencing. A genuinely brilliant Scientist whose work on astrophysics, evolutionary psychology and planetary Science changed the way we view ourselves and our planet. Carl Sagan also played a role in pretty much every major space exploration program of the last 50 years. So when he decided to write a novel it’s no surprise the result was Scientifically perfect. Nothing goes astray.
The novel tells the story of mankind’s first potential contact with alien life, told through the eyes of Ellie Arroway, the astronomer who detects the signal. The book and film are both powerfully plausible explorations of how such a contact would be achieved and how earth-politics and human short-sightedness could interfere with the process.
Once again, the story is the Science itself. It’s not about “the aliens are going to attack us, we need to find their weakness and fight back”, the story’s dramatic tension comes from: will we be technologically able to answer the aliens, what are they like, what do they want from us and what will happen when we meet? The story is the exploration and discovery.
While the film is superb (Jodie Foster is perfectly cast as Arroway) it does occasionally veer a little toward sentimentality and cliche while the book remains sober from start to finish. The characters are well drawn, the story is thrilling, the Science is 100% sound and Sagan’s prose is as majestic as his non-fiction.
It is a heart-breaking, mind-expanding and spirit-soaring exploration of what it feels like to be a Scientist in a world that wants the products of Science (technology, medicine and knowledge) but isn’t prepared to engage with the methods of skepticism and critical thinking.
It is, ultimately, a celebration of Science, Scientists and the Scientific method. Whatever you think of the book or film as a work of fiction is besides the point. The Science is perfect. And for that reason it has to be the number one. Any time someone claims you can’t always get the facts right in order to make a good book or movie, point them in the direction of Contact.
Star Trek: Wired
Europa Report: Space
The Martian: Amazon
Life of Pi by Yann Martell is a superb book. It’s well written (far better than anything I could do), never boring and full of interesting characters. It’s a thoughtful book; at times funny, at times heart-breaking. It manages to be a profound and moving piece of literature while also being easy to read. Everything a good novel should be in other words.
It’s also worth mentioning that the film adaptation by Ang Lee is equally well crafted. Considering most of the story takes place on a single boat the film manages to remain visually interesting while Lee uses colour, angle and even aspect-ratio to immerse you in this half-real, half-fantasy world. I would recommend both book and film to anyone who asks.
But Life of Pi is dangerous. I believe Yann Martell’s superb book perpetuates a dangerous myth. One of the most popular and persistent myths in the world.
Now, I’m aware that many people in the world, when they find a book’s ideology threatening will ban it or burn it. I think that's a terrible idea. When I eventually run the world, I will not burn Life of Pi or indeed any other book I find problematic or offensive (looking in your direction The Slap).
Instead of banning Life of Pi outright I’ll try to make my case for why it should be treated with the utmost caution. People can still read the book, but I will obviously force everyone in the world to read this blog post beforehand, on pain of death.
The following contains *major spoilers* so if you haven’t read the book or seen the film, I recommend you do so. You will most likely enjoy it. Curse you Yann Martel. If you'd written the book badly it would be so much easier to criticise.
The story of the book is as follows: a ship is sunk in the Pacific ocean and after several months, the only survivor – a teenage boy named Pi – washes ashore in South America. Two insurance men and a writer come to talk to him about what happened and he tells them two different stories.
One story is a brutal, heart-breaking tale in which he and a few other people (including his mother) try to survive in the life-boat but hunger, aggression and greed lead to fighting and eventually murder of the other passengers.
In the alternative story Pi is trapped on the life-boat with a Bengal tiger. The two castaways discover a mysterious island complete with acid-lakes and they battle storms, drought and learn mutual respect for each other in order to survive.
The book concludes with Pi explaining that both stories are possibly true and there is no way of distinguishing them. One of the stories is more fantastical, more entertaining and more gripping, whle the other is bleak, flat and depressing. With no way of deciding between them, Pi asks the people interviewing him (and we the reader) which is the better story. The answer is obviously the one with the tiger.
And this becomes the story everyone in the book decides to go with. The message is clear: if you have no way of deciding something one way or the other, go with whatever you like the best.
The Great Unknown
The current accelerated expansion of the Universe is not understood. We’ve nicknamed whatever’s causing it ‘dark energy’ as a place-holder until we get a better understanding. For now 'dark energy' is a complete mystery.
There lots of potential explanations (hypotheses) and none of them can be verified or falsified. It could be that we need to modify Einstein’s theory of general relativity, it could be a new type of force, it could be some sort of negative gravity. We have no clue. So when someone asks us what is happening to the Universe we really ought to say “I don’t know which hypothesis is correct” because that is the honest answer.
Now, suppose someone were to put forward the hypothesis that the Universe is inside a giant balloon and there’s an enormous fish-wizard called Greta exhaling into it, thus expanding the Universe. This is an explanation. It’s also a pretty awesome explanation. It’s definitely a better story than "we need to check the equations"....so do we accept the cosmic fish wizard? Obviously not.
We should be comfortable saying we don’t know what the truth is. Ignorance is not a bad answer. There isn’t a hypothesis-vacuum which must be filled with any explanation we can find. When we accept a suggestion we must do so based on convincing evidence. The more remarkable the claim, the more convincing that evidence has to be.
But where’s the harm I hear you say? Why can’t people just be allowed to believe whatever they want to? I agree, much of the time it makes no real difference. If a person wants to believe their flowers grow better if they put mustard on them, where's the problem? It harms nobody. But let’s say that same person decides you can use mustard in place of a headache cure, or antibiotics, or cancer-treatment. Or what if they applied this approach to their pet or even their children? People have believed stranger things.
I agree that believing whatever you want doesn’t always lead to harm but it does have the potential to do so. Yes, people are entitled to believe what they want. But don’t people want to believe what’s true? Wouldn't the world be a better place if we tried to do that?
1) I’ve written before about Conspiracy theories. We aren’t privy to what goes on inside a government meeting for instance, so there are two stories about what’s going on behind the closed doors of London and Washington: (1) they’re plotting to mind-control us…....(2) they’re not.
The first story is more dramatic, more exciting, more edgy and makes us feel courageous for exposing the truth. But it could lead us to be mistrustful of a government, affecting the way we vote. It could make us paranoid, draw us to fringe groups, even violence in the name of what we think is truth.
Some conspiracy hypotheses might be correct (just like the tiger story) but why assume they’re true when there’s just as much evidence for as against them i.e. none whatsoever? Wouldn’t it be better to say “I don’t know if we can trust the current government, let’s try to find evidence?”
2) Suppose a court has to decide on the verdict of a murder. There will be a defendant and an accompanying story in which they are guilty. If we decide they are innocent we are essentially saying “we don’t know who the killer is”.
Clearly in this situation we should be open to saying we don’t know rather than go with the convenient or dramatic story that the person is guilty (they might be of course, but if the evidence isn’t strong enough, we shouldn’t convict on the grounds of not wanting to admit ignorance).
3) Imagine a person believed a unicorn spirit monster was telling them to commit an act of mass murder. There is no way to confirm or disconfirm this hypothesis. They really might be getting secret messages telling them to kill, but they might also be deluding themselves.
If it’s fine to “believe what you want” then obviously there’s a reasonable chance the person will believe the unicorn story. It makes them feel special (the chosen one) it makes them feel there are forces at work we have no control over (removes responsibility and blame) tells us there is hope for an afterlife (spirits exist, therefore afterlives might also) etc. etc. Holding off on the killing is to admit ignorance, but the unicorn story is definitely more appealing than "we just don't know." Do we really want this person going with the story they like best?
Hint on subtext: “the unicorn” may or may not be a metaphor for another type of belief which can persuade people to commit terrible acts on the strength of zero evidence because they like the idea and it makes them feel special.
The Coin Debate
Imagine you were in a debate with a friend about something harmless, say you were deciding what movie to go and see. You flip a coin but it brexits your hand and ends up beneath the sofa. If your friend said “well, we don’t know which way it landed, so let’s assume it landed heads”, you’d obviously say it wasn’t fair.
The answer to which way the coin landed is unknown. You don’t just go with whatever version you or the other person likes best. You replay the point. You flip the coin again or you move the sofa, whatever. The point is: you admit you can’t decide what the original answer was and flip it again.
The really weird thing is, we can all imagine arguing with the friend. How dare they just pick the version of reality they like? Utter nonsense. And yet, how often do we see people doing this with far more important issues? People choose to believe all sorts of un-provable things including potentially harmful ones by appealing to “well it's my opinion and I like that belief”.
If we wouldn’t accept it in the coin-toss example, why should we accept it when it comes to far more important things like beliefs about politics, beliefs about God, beliefs about medicine, beliefs about love, beliefs about parenting etc. etc.
Defending a position because “you can choose what you want to believe” is a very harmful thing to say because it allows people to defend whatever horrifying thing they like - or excuse potentially harmful actions - by saying “well that’s my opinion”. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: yes you’re entitled to your opinion, but you can’t have opinions about the nature of reality.
Scientists – the destroyers of fun
There’s another problem with “picking the story you like best”. If you pick an answer to a question, you stop saying “I don’t know” which means you stop looking any further. The enquiry ceases and no progress is made. If we’re honest and admit we don’t know the truth, we are reminded to keep looking, to keep investigating. Picking an explanation before the facts are known is intellectually lazy and stunts discovery.
Imagine if Fleming or Pasteur had looked at diseases in the world and said “I don’t know what the cause is, so I’m going to go with the story I like best: demons cause disease!” they’d stop looking further and we’d have essentially no modern medicine.
The Scientific position on such matters is to say we don’t know what the truth is until there’s evidence. The story of the tiger might be more fun, more magical but that isn’t a good enough reason to believe it. And, in fact, if we apply Occam’s razor it’s often more reliable to go with the less extravagant claim. The more down-to-Earth one. But people don’t like doing this and I know why.
People resent Science for “taking away the magic”.
When we’re young we believe all sorts of fun stories about the world. We believe myths, urban legends and rumours of the playground. A scientific education nails these things to the wall and flames them mercilessly. We replace superstition with theory. We replace hearsay with research and we replace un-checkable claims with an admission of ignorance. Yes. Scientists do take away the magic. But we replace it with better magic. Magic that is real!
I’ve genuinely had people criticise me on this point because, in their own words, “why can’t we just believe in things like Santa Claus?” Well, you can believe in Santa if you want, I can’t stop you. But in doing so you’re missing out on something even better: a fully-fledged, complex, intricate and reliable view of the this astounding Universe. Why is Science doing something bad by encouraging people to see the beauty of reality rather than the beauty of made-up stuff?
Anyone who thinks nature is boring hasn't studied it in any kind of detail. You think reality is boring? There's a planet which rains diamonds. Some of the particles in your body can teleport...to the moon. Chimpanzees have invented machine technology. You can hypnotise people into not feeling the pain of surgery. You have a neuron in your brain which responds specifically to the face of Jennifer Aniston. Your legs are experiencing time at a different rate to your head. We have conducted rudimentary thought transplants. You can set fire to water. Bumble bees vote by performing dance-battles. Don't tell me nature isn't interesting.
Nature is not boring and neither are people. Both are worth learning about.
Science is magic.
And while we're at it, let's take the Santa Claus example further. Technically, when we are asleep we don’t know what happened. The grounded explanation is that our parents gave us presents, the magical one is that Santa did it. But really, is the grounded explanation bad or disappointing?
Isn’t it nice to learn that our parents love us and go to the trouble of surprising us at Christmas? OK, we have to let go of Santa Claus, but don’t we gain something deep and profound about the real world by exchanging the magical belief for the more likely one? Isn’t there a beauty in reality that we miss if we believe the fairy tales?
Likewise, in Life of Pi, the more plausible story (murder and desperation at sea) tells us something about human nature. It doesn’t have the fantastical tiger or the magic-island, but isn’t human nature worth learning about?
I’m not saying Life of Pi is going to turn people into crazed conspiracists who believe in fish-wzards and murder-unicorns. Of course not. But I do think it’s a novel which perpetuates a potentially harmful myth which can, in the long run, lead to unhealthy thinking.
The idea that ignorance is to be avoided, that we can pick whichever version of truth we like and that it is possible to decide the outcome of an experiment when there’s no supporting evidence one way or the other.
So, that’s my case. Life of Pi is a wonderful book but it’s indicative of a certain way of thinking which says our personal preferences and opinions have baring over reality. They don’t. But that’s not a bad thing. The real world has magic in it. You don’t have to give it up when you become a Scientist! And guess what, we're not trying to ruin anybody's cherished beliefs. We're trying to give the world something even better.
Life of Pi cover: Canongate books
The Slap: Ben Veal
Fish wizard: Gameteep
The Euro: Wordpress
Easter Bunny: Funchap
Zombies are one of those iconic monsters that everyone knows the rules for. With a vampire you stake them through the heart (although let's be frank, wouldn't that kill most things?). With a werewolf it's silver bullets through the heart (again...wouldn't that work for anything?). And then for a zombie it's all about removing the head or destroying the brain (seriously, why are these even the rules?)
Zombies - reanimated human corpses who shamble along seeking victims - come from Haitain folklore. In the original stories, zombies are usually brought back to life by witch-doctors and they perform their master's bidding.
The modern idea of a zombie as a flesh-eating corpse came much later, almost entirely from George A. Romero and his iconic series of films: Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead, Diary of the Dead and Survival of the Dead.
These films introduced what we now think of as a zombie and the idea of a zombie apocalypse where modern society has crumbled and the remaining humans live in secluded shelters while the world belongs to the walking dead.
Today zombies show up everywhere from The Simpsons to Harry Potter and at the moment the abc TV series The Walking Dead gives us a flavour of how humans would survive in the deep south of America. In fact, the US Department of Health even commissioned a report on how the CDC might help prevent a zombie apocalypse. Think I'm joking? Check this link: CDC Zombie initiative. There, who's joking now.
What would happen in an apocalypse?
Let's say something really did go wrong with our infrastructure and people all abandoned their posts to go home and be with loved ones/loot the local shops (NB: timjamesScience does not endorse looting of local shops). Well, the first thing to go would be electricity. While there are some Hydroelectric power stations and wind-farms, the majority of our electricity is still provided either by Nuclear or fossil-fuels.
They both work in the same way: generate an unholy amount of heat (either by bringing radioactive material close together or by burning mountains of fossil-fuel) and use it to boil water. That produces steam which is used to turn a turbine hooked up to a generator, giving us that delicious 50 Hz Alternating Current (NB: the electrical current output of a power station is not actually delicious and will kill you, timjamesScience does not endorse the licking of power lines).
Both types of power station have a lot of things that can go wrong, so here's the thing: they're actually designed to shut down as quickly as possible if nobody's manning the controls. Power stations generally get an "emergency shutdown alarm" every hour. Something being too hot, too pressured, too fast etc. will trigger these alarms and everything powers down unless the crew are there to keep it alive.
In fact, a lot of the people at a Power Station are there to stop it from deactivating, because it's designed to do that as a safety measure. So if all the power station workers are running home to escape the zombie horde, the power station will go dark very shortly afterward.
Your phone signal will go soon after. The phone itself is battery operated but the base-stations where your calls and texts are recieved are run by mains electricity. They usually have backup generators, so if you're very lucky the phone stations might remain active for a couple of days after the blackout but that's being very optimistic. And there are no phone networks I know of that have a zombie contingency plan.
After the power stations go, the next thing you'll probably lose will be water. Although the water flow in your taps and boilers will last you a couple of days, most water has to be pumped. Thing is, we tend to live above water level (it would be pretty stupid to do the opposite). So most water has to be mechanically raised from the water table to get it to people's homes...and those pumps are electrically powered. So if the power stations go, so does the water supply. Followed swiftly by your gas supply (for the same reasons, gas will flow but the pumps to control it are electrical). So electricity goes, followed by phone and internet signals, and then finally your water, gas and heating. Unless you live in Scandanavia where most of the power is generated from renewable sources. Those guys have thought of everything.
Your best bet for communicating with other people (and negotiating your entry into Sweden, offering Kevin Bacon as payment) is either going to be a HAM radio (battery powered radio transmitter/recievers) which don't rely on base stations, or to use a satellite phone which communicates with - you guessed it - satellites. We're going to assume here that the zombies haven't made it into space. Although that would make a pretty awesome movie.
Could zombies really happen?
From a biological perspective, we have to remember that the idea of a zombie is a person who dies then comes back to life as a reanimated corpse. I'm going to discount the "zoombies" or "turbo-zombies" from movies like 28 Days Later or World War Z because in those movies, the people weren't necessarily dieing and coming back, they were being infected with some kind of virus. I'm talking about actual, shambling around, walking-dead, human-eating groany type zombies...could they happen? Oh and none of your wussy "zombies with feelings" nonsense.
The answer to whether the walking dead could happen is, reassuringly, no. And here's the reason. For something to be moving their muscles have to be working. For muscles to work they need to be carrying out respiration. Respiration is the chemical reaction that takes place in all your cells where oxygen is reacted with glucose. This means the zombies need a fresh supply of oxygen to carry out respiration which means they need a working heart and a working set of lungs. And if you've died, these things don't reanimate because they decompose very, very quickly. When you see zombies in movies they are always decaying as they walk. Which means their lungs and heart won't be working for much longer.
Furthermore, if the zombies didn't get hold of glucose (the other necessary chemical) they'd die out in a few weeks anyway. So your best bet for surviving the zombie apocalypse really is to bunker down somewhere and wait for the zombies to starve to death. If there's nothing for them to eat, they don't respirate, no movement, no walking corpses. Done.
I know you hear urban legends and stories about people medically dieing and coming back, but they are just that - stories. They're not true. There are no recorded instances in medical history of a person actually medically dieing (as in, the cells in their spinal column cease respiration) and then reanimating. Sometimes doctors can make mistakes and comatose patients are declared dead, but this was the doctor making a mistake. Once you're braindead, that's it. You don't come back from it. You start decaying immediately and there is no known way of reanimating the dead brain, heart and lungs in order to generate a walking-dead thing. It just doesn't happen. People don't come back from the dead.
Although, if you want to read about something really interesting, check out Cotard's delusion; a rare mental condition in which the patient believes they have actually died and that their body is decaying. Maybe that's where the zombie myth originally came from?? But who would dare suggest there are Scientific explanations for superstitious beliefs? Not me.
Rick Grimes with gun: hiddenremote
Kevin Bacon: examiner
Ham radio: Photosopphed by the user "RagnarokDel" at linustechtips
Warm Bodies: vignette4
Axl Rose: thegauntlet
I love science, let me tell you why.