If you ask a Physicist whether time travel is possible, they'll usually respond by saying "Well...erm...it depends...sort of...uh...look a DeLorean!" You might wonder why they don't just come out and say nobody knows. The reason is that this answer, while technically true, misses the point. We don't know if people can time-travel but we aren't shrugging our shoulders either.
If you'd asked the Wright brothers if airplanes were possible on December 6th 1903 (the day before their landmark flight) they wouldn't have said "we don't know". They'd dedicated years to studying aerodynamics and while they didn't know for sure, saying they had no idea would have sold it short.
Time travel might be the same. We've not achieved it yet but some Physicists take the question seriously. They might be lunatics, they might be onto something. So the best answer to the question of time travel is probably to say "maybe."
What is Time?
When I was about sixteen I used to do this thing whenever anybody asked me what the time was. I'd reply by saying "it's the thing we use to measure the passing of the day". I recieved many beatings.
But when you get right down to it, what exactly is time? Is it a human invention to keep track of stuff or is it a feature of the Universe with properties? This used to be a question for philosophers, but since Einstein published his theory of General Relativity, Physics has been able to provide an actual answer. Time is a real thing. Sort of.
Imagine a fish swimming through water. The fish can’t see the surrounding liquid but it can still detect its presence. As the water ripples and flows, the fish is aware of being pulled, but it never detects the invisible substance itself. The water is an unseeable background to the fish's universe.
We, like the fish, are currently sitting inside giant invisible everywhere-substances which stretch in all directions. They're like invisible fluids which permeate the Universe and although we can never see them, we can detect their presence. Physicists have a word for these invisible materials which contain reality: fields.
The field most people have heard of is the magnetic field. This field allows two objects to communicate with each other, repelling or attracting, and although we cannot see the field in its "naked form" we can see its influence on magnets and compasses.
And the magnetic field is just one of several. There are fields everywhere which are responsible for pretty much all of the Physics we observe. And time, according to General Relativity, is part of one of these fields.
Einstein's Purple Universe
Consider a piece of paper. You can describe it as having two sides: front and back. The two sides are distinct but they move as one. You couldn't fold just the front-side, for instance. By bending the front over you're also pulling the back with it. By being a piece of paper, it always has two components: front and a back. Well, it turns out some of the fields in our Universe are the same. They have two different surfaces which are linked together. How does that work?
Imagine there was a field everywhere which was purple. As it waved and whirled, we would detect the purple-ness being darker in some places and lighter in others. We could even develop complex equations to describe the movements of the purple field.
But here's the thing: we could, if we wanted, describe it as a red field and a blue field mixed together and overlapping. The purple field could be described and explained as a combination of two intertwinning fields which combine to make purple. You can’t affect the blue field without also affecting the red and vice versa.
The red and blue aspects of the purple field aren’t identical of course (blue and red are obviously not the same). But they are locked together, operating as one substance. You can't sensibly talk about the blue field and the red field separately, you can only talk about their combined influence. You may know that the electromagnetic field is like this, a composite field made from magnetic and electric components.
And, according to General Relativity, time can be thought of as being akin to the blue field - it is an aspect of a larger field made up of space and time linked together. This gets a bit weird but it's a blog on time travel, what do you expect?
It's hard to visualise but the three space-dimensions are fused with a fourth time dimension. Time is a quarter of the spacetime field. Although we think of time and space as separate things they are really mashed together into one purpley spacetime mixture. Which means whatever we do to one part of the field, we automatically do to the other parts.
Einstein wasn’t the first person to play around with this idea of time being a fourth dimension. Hermann Minkowski, another great Physicist, also conceived of time as being a dimension inseparable from the others. It was impossible, he argued, to define an object in the Universe without including a time dimension because time was always present.
Imagine an object that has all three spatial dimensions, but doesn't exist in the time dimension. An object which exists for zero seconds is an object which doesn’t exist for any amount of time. In other words: an object which doesn't exist. Time has to be considered a dimension like the other three, completely inseparable from the spacetime field. But this obviously presents us with a problem…
Time seems different
Time doesn’t act like the other three dimensions. For one thing, we can’t immediately see how much time an object takes up. If you see an orange you can immediately know its size (spatial dimensions) but you don’t know how long the orange has been around for, and how long it will last. You can’t immediately see whether the orange will be plucked from the tree tomorrow or in a week’s time. The time dimension is partly hidden from us.
Time also seems to be a one-way dimension. I can easily take a step left and then right. Or jump up and then down. Or forward and then backward. The three spatial dimensions are completely reversible. But time isn't. I can only move through time forwards.
Time is also different in that we only see along it backward to the direction we're travelling. Although I'm moving along the time axis in a forward direction I can't see where I'm going, only where I've been. What I mean is that I know what happened five seconds ago, but I don’t know what will happen five seconds from now. Why is time so different?
In all honesty, this is the heart of the time-travel problem. Either time truly is a different type of field-aspect or time secretly is like the spatial dimensions at a deep-level, there are just other factors which get in the way and give it the illusion of distinctiveness. What's referred to in Physics as a "broken symmetry". So, what do we know about time so far?
Forward to the future
Time travel to the future is not only possible, it has been achieved numerous times thanks to our knowledge of Relativity. One of the strange side-effects of the spacetime field is that it can be bent and squashed depending on how you’re moving.
It sounds bonkers but Relativity tells us the faster you move, the slower time passes for you. As you travel faster time slows down.
Imagine you were holding a stopwatch and your friend held an identical one. If you started them simultaneously they would tick in perfect unison. If you then got in a rocket ship and moved extremely fast, you might decide 5 minutes had passed. But when you got back to Earth, your friend’s clock says that a whole week has elapsed. You were only travelling for 5 minutes, but time was going faster for everyone else so you are now one week into the future.
This isn’t just speculation. This experiment has really been done. In 1971 Joseph Hafele and Richard Keating (above) decided to put this bizarre claim of Einstein’s to the test by synching up atomic clocks and moving around the world in a jet plane. Sure enough, when the plane landed it had a different time-reading to the one on the ground, by several minutes.
Astronauts experience the same thing. If you spend several months in the ISS, travelling at 27,000 km/hour you’ll find when you come back, everyone else has aged more than you have. Astronauts really do accelerate forward in time.
Technically so do you! Every time you get in an airplane, a car or even run, you are slowing time down compared to everyone else. You are genuinely moving into their future. Usually this effect is very small, only a few microseconds, but travel to the future is completely accessible to us, you just have to move fast. So future travel is 100% possible. What about backwards? Again, the question is about whether is symmetric to the other dimensions or somehow unique.
One of the classic problems with backwards time travel is that you could, in theory, go back in time and change the order of events, violating cause and effect (one of the most important laws in Physics). The most famous example is the grandfather paradox.
Supposing I went back in time and met one of my grandfathers as a young man. And then I shot him. This prevents him from growing up and having children. My father is never born and neither am I. But if I have stopped myself from being born, that means I have never existed…so how did I go back in time and shoot my grandfather if I don’t exist?
This paradox is often touted as one of the reasons backwards time travel wouldn’t be possible. But that’s not actually true. The grandfather paradox can be solved quite simply. Hollywood has already given us several ways of answering the problem. I’m going to name each one after the most famous movie to depict it (Spoilers ahead).
Back to the Future 2 – Parallel worlds
In BTTF2, Marty McFly accidentally causes a paradox by sending some information back through time which changes the course of history - giving his arch nemesis control over his home town. But hope isn't lost because the original "good" timeline still exists and he can restore it. In this approach, when you travel back in time you create a parallel Universe.
If I go backwards in time and shoot my grandfather, I’m creating two alternate realities. One in which my grandfather survived (the reality I come from) and a new Universe where my grandfather is dead. Both Universe’s now continue forwards, oblivious to each other.
Terminator – Destroy your own Universe
In the Terminator movies, there’s a similar idea: going back in time creates a new Universe, but the difference is that the original Universe gets deleted in the process. This is how the robots try to win their war on humanity, by going back in time and killing the leader of the human resistence. This creates a new reality in which the humans have no leader, and the robots win.
If I go back in time using this reality, I backspace-delete the world as I go. I wind up back in the 40s, shoot my grandfather and create a new Universe, but the original one is gone. I’ve committed the ultimate mass genocide by wiping out the next 80 years.
Frequency – Universe overlap
The movie Frequency isn’t very well known but it’s one of the few movies to depict this third version of time travel. In this approach, you go back and make a change, which then overlaps with the real version. I make a change in the timeline and people in the future immediately detect the change I made.
Technically, Frequency and a few other films which have played with this interpretation (Bill & Ted, BTTF) cheat a little, but the idea is that my grandfather is simultaneously shot and not shot at the same time. People in the future remember him dying, but also remember him not dying. The two time-streams are invisible to anyone not affected, but for me, my grandfather and everyone we know, we end up with two sets of realities in our heads. Weird.
Twelve Monkeys – You Can’t Change the Past
In Twelve Monkeys, the main character goes back in time to try and change the world, but his very act of going back in time ends up fulfilling the bad thing he was trying to avoid. According to this interpretation, time is set in stone. So if I went back in time and tried to kill my grandfather, I would find it impossible. My gun wouldn’t work, the bullets wouldn’t hit him etc. etc. Since time is rock-solid and we already know my grandfather lived, travelling back in time changes nothing.
Doctor Who – Wibbly Wobbly Timey Wimey
Doctor Who has a very clever way of dealing with time travel – the rules are different in different situations. The same way gravity is different in different places, time’s behaviour varies from point to point. There are some events which can’t be altered and some which can. Some changed events create alternate Universes, some create overlaps. Having this loose set of time-travel rules is obviously useful for the writers because they can tell any story they want. So perhaps time, like many other substances, is just messy. Sometimes rigid, sometimes bendable.
Faster than light?
In the Star Trek episode The Naked Time the crew of the enterprise take Einstein’s time bending concept to the limit. If time slows down the faster you go, could you go so fast that eventually time would stop…and then go faster so time would reverse? The crew of the Enterprise discover that by travelling at an insane warp-factor they are able to travel backwards through time by going faster than light-speed (the Universal speed limit).
While going faster than light would cause time to reverse, there is a catch. Relativity says that travelling at light speed = time stopping, but it also says reaching light speed is impossible for objects with mass.
When you reach light speed your mass ends up becoming the square root of negative one – which is nonsensical. In other words, a massive object can’t do it. It would be like saying that drawing a four-sided triangle lets you travel through time. Maybe it does, but a four-sided triangle is an impossible thing. Likewise a massive-light-speed object is impossible, so it might work, but there's no way to pull it off. So does that mean time travel into the past is a no go? Not necessarily.
Most of modern Physics rests on two great theory-pillars. General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics (Quantum field theory to be precise). And both of these great theories suggest possible loopholes in the laws of Physics which would allow time travel to occur...
General Relativity's answer: Wormholes
If spacetime is a fabric which can be bent and twisted, could it be bent back on itself? As far as we know, the answer is yes. In what’s called an Einstein-Rosen bridge effect, it is possible to take spacetime, loop it and point it back at itself like a hosepipe. Travelling into one of these tunnels would spit you out somewhere else in space and somewhen else in time.
Normally the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. But if we're allowed to bend spacetime however we want, we could grab two bits of the Universe and bend them so that they're touching. To a creature inside the Universe, they would measure the distance between two points in spacetime as being far apart (like the glowing loop on the left side of the diagram). But to the wormhole traveller, you can shortcut from one part of space to the other (as shown by the tunnel in the centre of the diagram).
The only catch with a man-made wormhole is that we couldn’t travel any farther back than the earliest one we’d built. Suppose we built one mouth of a wormhole in 2017 and the other end in 2019. That would mean we could only ever go back to 2017. So I’m afraid nobody can go back and kill Hitler because nobody built a wormhole-mouth in 1939. The past has been made inaccessible to us, but if we somehow crack wormhole technology, it might not always be so.
Quantum Mechanics' answer: Richard Feynman
Quantum mechanics describes the basic laws which our Universe runs on. It's the fuel which makes Physics go. It's also remarkably weird because the laws of quantum mechanics are very different to the laws of the common sense world. Quantum mechanics is used to describe the fundamental particles of reality and it turns out they do some very strange things. Of particular interest is Feynman's work on something called Charge-Parity-Time (CPT) conservation.
Charge describes whether two particles will attract or repel. Parity refers to their directionality; whether they move left or right. Time refers to which direction they're moving through the spacetime fabric. Feynman was able to show, with unambiguous clarity and powerful experimental evidence, that all three of these properties can be reversed in unison.
Feynman discovered that if you reverse time, the laws of Physics look identical. There is nothing preventing particles from moving backwards. While time looks unsymmetrical from our perspective, to a particle it is completely symmetrical. The same way playing a video in reverse causes everything to move in the wrong direction, reversing the time-flow of a particle will also flip its parity and charge.
Particles travelling backward in time should appear to us as some kind of reversed-matter or “antimatter” which has been discovered. We can even make it. So is it possible that every time we make antimatter, we're also successfully creating backward-time-travelling particles? Yes.
To be absolutely clear, we can't prove absolutely that antimatter is regular matter moving backward through time. But it’s interesting that we've discovered something which looks exactly how backward-time matter is predicted to look. (For more on antimatter, check out the video below from one of my students)
Obviously, everyday objects aren't moving backward through time however. So why do tiny particles see time as symmetric, but this symmetry gets broken by the time we scale it up to the everyday world? There are lots of possible answers and none are completely satisfactory. This is what the time-travel question is about.
So, is time travel possible? Well...erm...kind of...depends on...sort of...uhh...look there's a Delorean!
Dear Hollywood, I'm writing to thank you for all your efforts getting the Science accurate in your recent movies. Most people, as I'm sure you're aware, aren't fooled by techno-jargon anymore and you can't just throw words like "quantum laser" around. In fact, you may remember my recent blog where I highlighted ten examples of Sci-fi media getting the Science right. I am sincerely grateful that smart Sci-fi movies are becoming more frequent. After all, the more good Science we have in movies, the more kids grow up with a trustworthy view of the world. So thank you.
As happy as I am that scriptwriters are making an effort to get their Science correct however, I have to raise a concern over the way Scientists themselves are depicted. At the moment cinematic Scientists usually fall into two categories: lunatic villains or incomprehensible uber-nerds. Scientists are either busy creating death-robots or scratching endless equations onto blackboards in dimly lit laboratories, usually with a vaguely German accent.
I'll accept the latter type of Scientist does exist (although FYI, nobody uses blackboards anymore) but the stereotypes are getting a bit worn out aren't they? Don't worry, I do understand the need...sometimes you want to ground your movie in real-world Science, so if you bring a "Science-character" in and have them spout a bunch of gobbledook, the plot suddenly works. But I honestly don't think people are buying it anymore. Writing Scientists as evil geniuses or bumbling equation-surfers is starting to smack of lazy writing.
Besides, you don't want to teach people Scientists are "mad". The inventions of medicine, electricity, vehicles, clean water, heating, the internet, and even the technology used to make movies are all gifts from Scientists. We built the modern world and we think we've been pretty patient so far, perhaps you'd be willing to stop painting us as evil or incomprehensible?
In order to help you, I've compiled a list of some outstanding fictional Scientists who did a great service to our global community. I've chopped out people like Sherlock Holmes (who studied Chemistry at Oxford) or Bruce Wayne (who studied at the Berlin school of Science) because while they have Scientific educations, they are detectives of crime while Scientists are detectives of nature.
Of course, you don't have to pay attention to my list and can continue with the "mad Scientist" stereotypes if you wish. But, just so you know, the minority of Scientists who really are "mad" are not happy with the situation either. I'm not saying they're busy working on a death ray, but I might remind you that Scientists built the world you currently live in. You might not want to annoy us too much. I await your response. Your humble servant - tim james
10. Bruce Banner (Marvel Comics/The Avengers)
Depending on whether you go with the movies or comics, Bruce Banner's origin story plays out slightly differently...but both are equally noble. In the comic book he's a nuclear Physicist who rescues someone from a nuclear blast, while in the movies he's a Biologist trying to cure blood diseases, testing his new radiotherapy technique on himself. In both cases, his selflessness turns him into the Hulk, an angry dynamite-truck on legs.
If I had Banner's powers, the first thing I'd do would be trigger a Hulk-episode and go after all the people I hate. Pseudoscientists, politicians who deny global warming, people who wear flip-flops etc. etc. But not Bruce Banner. Banner keeps his powerful side under wraps for fear of hurting people. He actually tries to play down his greatest asset. This makes him unique among super heroes because rather than using his powers, he tries to hide them. Banner is a voice of morality and maturity among otherwise playful demi-gods. He's not a wise-cracking Spider-man or an arrogant Iron-man, he's a responsible, grownup-man.
In the real world, some Scientists really do make themselves suffer for the good of mankind by the way. People like Barry Marshall, who deliberately drank a petri dish of Helicobacter Pilori in order to find out whether they caused stomach ulcers...they did (he later won the 2005 Nobel prize for medicine). So it's nice to see a Scientist with super powers acting like an adult.
9. Victor Frankenstein (Frankenstein by Mary Shelley)
Now, before you say "he's the ultimate mad Scientist" I'm talking about the character as originally described in Shelley's novel from 1818, not the "It's aliiiiiive!" guy from the 1931 movie. Frankenstein, as he appears in the book, is a tragic hero; so excited by discovery that he doesn't think about the possibility of things going wrong.
His original desire to create life is not to play God, but to cure the greatest illness - death itself. Frankenstein wants to live in a world without grief and that is a good thing to pursue. It's also of important that the instant his creature comes to life, he realises his mistake and flees (as shown in the above picture, taken from the original book). He doesn't cling to his intelligence in place of morality, he quickly realises he's made a mistake and lives in self-hatred for the rest of his life, haunted by the monster of his own making.
Victor Frankenstein of the book was also a much better Scientist than the Frankenstein of the movies. The monster he creates isn't ugly but perfectly formed. It can speak, read, write and argue philosophically. The only reason, in fact, Victor comes to loathe his creation is because he fears he has crossed a moral boundary. Most movies tend to miss the fact that Frankenstein was a good guy haunted by his own guilt, although I recommend the Kenneth Brannagh and James McAvoy versions if you're interested.
8. Zefram Cochrane (Star Trek)
In the Star Trek Universe, Cochrane is a pretty important, although not very well known character. In the fictional history of the show, he's the guy who invented warp drive and made first contact with aliens. Without him, human beings would never have been allowed to trek in the first place! The reason I've chosen him isn't for his appearance in the episode Metamorphosis however, it's his appearance in the eighth movie, First Contact, played by James Cromwell.
The plot of FC sees the enterprise crew travelling back in time to meet Cochrane just before he makes his historical warp-test. In doing so, the crew is allowed to meet their hero and they discover something: Cochrane is a bit of an ass. He's not the brilliant, well tempered man of myth but a cantankerous grump who only wants to get his invention working so he can "retire to some tropical island filled with naked women".
What's brilliant about the movie however is that (Minor Spoiler Alert) once he's made his discovery and seen what it can do, he changes his mind. He starts thinking about the bigger picture and realises there's more to be gained than just money and women. We don't see his full evolution, but we get a glimpse of him re-discovering his passion for Science and deciding to be worthy of his own legend. Plus, he's a fan of classic rock which automatically makes him worth a place in the top ten.
7. Hari Seldon (Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov)
Most of the people on this list have been included because of their Scientific thinking, rather than their achievements. If we measure greatness according to "how well they act like Scientists" then we're looking for reason, skepticism, logic, commitment to evidence etc. etc. but I also think it's worth including a Scientist who makes an incredible Scientific discovery. In that regard, one of the greatest fictional Scientists is Hari Seldon.
Seldon's Scientific achievement is one of the most remarkable in all of scifi. He invents a predictive model for the galactic human civilization. By using thermodynamic theories of particle physics, Seldon is able to create a theory which successfully predicts every rebellion, every war and every dictator that will arise in the coming years. He essentially invents the perfect method for predicting future-history. His model even works when people know it exists and try to rebel against it, because his model predicts their act of rebellion. How's that for a mind-melt? Today's best Scientists can just about predict the weather 48 hours in advance. Seldon accurately predicts the fall and rise of empires over a millenial period.
Since governments are made of people, and people are made of chemicals, it should be possible in some massively hypothetical scenario to truly link the two. How will the basic laws of physics express themselves through human behaviour in other words? To compose such a theory, Seldon must have had an understanding of the Universe utterly unrivalled.
6. Professor Charles Xavier (X-Men)
Xavier was a child prodidgy, graduating from Harvard at sixteen and accruing four PhDs in Biological Sciences at Oxford. Besides this fierce intellect, he's also psychic; possessing the ability to read and control other people's minds. A person with those skills can do pretty much anything they want. So what does he do? Opens a school for vulnerable teenagers.
Xavier's job is, first and last, a teacher. And as we all know, Science teachers are in the business of saving the world. He gives young people hope, education and the ability to control their mutations, besides lobbying political groups and running the X-men, a mutant counter-terrorism organisation.
The most interesting thing about him is that he has the power to end the mutant war but chooses not to. He could get inside the minds of every villain and persuade them to start being good guys, but he refuses on the grounds that he doesn't want to violate free will. This makes him morally fascinating, not to mention controversial. He has the power to fix the world but avoids it because he doesn't think "ends justify means". He won't brainwash people into being good, but rather, wants to educate them into being better versions of themselves.
5. Rick Sanchez (Rick and Morty)
If you've never come across the animated comedy show Rick & Morty then it's best I don't tell you much about it, although I will say it's not for younger viewers. The Scientist of the show is Rick Sanchez, a brilliant man who's ability surpasses not only the rest of the human race, but the rest of the Universe. But what the show does perfectly, is to depict the price he pays for this genius.
A lot of the show's humour comes from the fact that Rick is simultaneously a Universe-faring adventurer, but also a man living in his daughter's spare room. The clash between the fantastical sci-fi and the domestic quarrels of people trying to live ordinary lives is what makes him unique. And it's this tension between Science and ordinary life that creates Rick's hell.
While Rick himself may not be a particularly moral character to have on the list (he's basically a terrible person) I had to include him because he perfectly encapsulates the dark side of being a Scientist...they are sometimes lonely individuals. When you see the beauty and insanity of the Universe everywhere you look, it can be hard to connect with other humans. Rick Sanchez is on here because every now and then the show hits a heart-breaking gut-punch in depicting the burden of genius: when you're brilliant, nobody gets you.
4. The Doctor (Doctor Who)
There are three reasons The Doctor is a brilliant Scientist. The first is his sense of hope. While Rick Sanchez gives up on people, The Doctor believes almost anyone can be redeemed and that no situation is truly no-win. After all, he could spend his life anywhere in the known Universe and yet chooses to invest his efforts protecting a tiny backwater world called Earth. He is optimistic about our planet and sees potential amid the bleak reality.
The second reason is simple: he's damn good at Science! Not only does he have a limitless knowledge of theoretical physics, The Doctor is also a great problem solver, determined to always think his way out of a problem rather than resorting to guns and intimidation. When everyone else believes in ghosts, The Doctor starts asking questions and doing experiments. He uses logic, evidence and critical thinking in order to save the day. Very few other fictional heroes manage to solve their problems with the brain alone.
The third and final reason is that the doctor is excited by everything. While disaster is the storyline of each episode, it's made clear that this only accounts for a small percentage of what he does. Most of the time he just blazes around the Universe finding out what it's like. He's not doing Science to save lives all the time, sometimes he's just doing it out of sheer curiosity.
3. Dr. Emmett Brown (Back to the Future Trilogy)
Steven Spielberg described reading the script for Back to the Future as “like someone emptying a dump-truck of good ideas into my brain”. It's hard to disagree with him, it is a truly brilliant film. Also the most wholesome and upbeat film about incest I've ever seen. And one of the main reasons the movie works so well is the impossible-to-dislike Doc Brown.
I’ve mentioned Doc Brown before because I love the way he describes himself as “a student of all Sciences”. He just finds the Universe cool and invents time travel as a mechanism for learning more about it. When Marty McFly tries to use the machine to cheat at sport, Doc Brown reminds him “I didn't invent the time machine to make money, I invented the time machine to travel through time!” In some ways, Doc Brown is a lot like The Doctor, he’s just a more upbeat version without a dark brooding interior. It's hard to picture this guy having a grumpy day.
Partly thanks to the wonderful performance of Christopher Lloyd, Doc Brown's portrayal of a Scientist is someone who is friendly, funny, admittedly a bit strange, but ultimately warm and caring, particularly in his loyalty toward Marty and Clara. While The Doctor and Rick Sanchez might be equally briliant, Doc Brown is someone you'd actually want to hang with.
2. Dr. Eleanour Arroway (Contact by Carl Sagan)
In my list of Sci-fi media that got the Science right, Contact was featured pretty highly. I've also talked about Ellie Arroway before in my blog on why we need a better representation of women Scientists in movies. But I really do think Ellie Arroway is worth talking about, so I'm going to talk about her again.
Arroway is the voice of reason amid a political circus that erupts when humans finally make contact with aliens. Played perfectly by Jodie Foster in the movie, and written beautifully in the novel by Sagan, Arroway finds herself constantly alone for the simple reason that she is right. While Arroway argues for reason, she is constantly overthrown by small-minded politicians who just want to get their angle in, missing the bigger picture. But, unlike Rick Sanchez or The Doctor, Arroway doesn't isolate herself from people and brood...she gets ready for a fight and never backs down.
Arroway is also ruthless when it comes to the Scientific method. She relies solely on evidence to form every aspect of her worldview and refuses to bow to public opinion or human desire. She is a Scientist to the very last page, keeping her mind open to every possibility, but matching it with a healthy skepticism. In fact, her commitment to Scientific thinking is topped only by one other character I can think of...
1. Spock (Star Trek)
Who else? Honestly, who else could top a list of fictional Scientists? Even people who've never seen Star Trek recognise Spock. It's hard to think of another Scientist who is so universally recognised and admired. Leonard Nimoy's portrayal of the Vulcan Mr. Spock (real name unpronouncable) is as much a part of modern cultural history as The Beatles or Marilyn Monroe.
The whole purpose of the Enterprise’s mission in Star Trek is Scientific discovery and, as the Science officer, Spock is key to the show. But the reason I’m picking him is because he comes from a planet run by of Scientists. Vulcan.
People often miss the point of the Vulcan race. They’re misrepresented as emotionless, cold and clinical observers of the Universe with no compassion. But Vulcans do feel emotion, violently so. The logic they use is an evolutionary defence-mechanism to keep themselves from murdering each other. Logic is their way of taming their wildness.
Anyone who thinks Spock lacks emotion needs to watch the final few minutes of The Amok Time (Series 2 Episode 1) and anyone who thinks Vulcans lack empathy needs to watch The Voyage Home. Vulcans are highly compassionate people they just control their emotions through sheer will of thought and commitment to reason.
The Vulcan race gives us a glimpse of something beautiful: a society which works. We're nowhere near that at the moment because humans are still caught in webs of tradition, selfishness and ego, but Vulcans give us something to shoot for. Spock is the epitome of what a Scientist tries to be. We aren’t cold, we aren’t clinical, we aren’t emotionless and we certainly aren’t mad. We just want to learn things. We just want to live long and prosper.
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 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 my “about” 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 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 Newtonian mechanics 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 methods of calculation 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’d spent about a year on the project. I’d 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 cellulose 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 goo. The new chemical really did dissolve wood about as accurately as my model predicted.
By no means does this prove my hypothesis is correct of course, someone could come along tomorrow and point out 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 discovery. 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, 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 method however. It cost about £60 to make 10 cubic centimeters 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 hypothesis 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 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 calculation. For example, to correctly solve the Schrodinger equation for a single atom of Iron requires (I have genuinely counted out the zeroes, this isn’t just a joke) 10000000000000
00000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000 different terms. No computer on Earth can do this yet.
By the late 1980s 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 like 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 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 when I first heard it. 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 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 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, to deal with this monstrosity, we call it "pi" for short and represent it with the famous stone-henge symbol. It's incredibly useful in modern Physics, not to mention engineering, statistics and a whole host of other stuff. Pi is an important part of the modern world and 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 have an irrational number built into it. The world has a perfect design so the idea of circles having this ugly number hidden inside 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.
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. In fact, challenging accepted ideas is one of the reasons we make progress at all. 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. 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 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. 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 change shape in order to validate the new law? Governments have to make decisions on ethical conduct, economics, trade and the welfare of its citizens. Their function is to protect and serve the population of the 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.
The fact is you can’t decide truth by committee. You decide it by investigating and considering the evidence. Nature is not a democracy. She's a dictator. Whatever she says goes. You aren't allowed to reject a fact because you don’t like it. 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?
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 unattractive…well…too bad. That's how circles are. The ratio between their outside and their middle is an unpleasant number. 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 OCR 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 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 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.
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 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 he 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, 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 "Jake 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.
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.
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% bona fide. 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 I 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 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 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 every day 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 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 it.
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?” 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. 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 motivation. 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 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 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 the 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 others.
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 else 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 at 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 providence, 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 was the person 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 he 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. That’s why I’m a teacher, because I want to make a difference to other people, the way they 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 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
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 be especially worried about what's being taught in school. 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 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. Unless I've spoken to you personally, you probably 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, but I feel that would be cowardly. 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. 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 boundaries 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 but that's fine, he's not a Biologist!
Isn't it a matter of opinion?
As I've said in pretty much every 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.
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 . 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 actually right; it would be wrong to teach children 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 Milton Diamond study points to genetic components being 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 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 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 mean every child will decide they are as well. After all, letting children know some people get A grades, doesn't mean that every child will suddenly get As (it don't work like that guv).
But what it might do is give the genderqueer students the confidence to admit to themselves, and to others, that they are genderqueer, without feeling any shame over something which is 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, if you'll excuse the pun, 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 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. 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 an “inappropriate” topic to post about. I am well aware that a lot of young people read my blogs and I have a responsibility to make sure my writing is family-friendly. That’s why my blogs are free of things like swearing. The topic of transgender Science however, is Biology and as part of Biology we have to discuss differences between men and women.
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 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 minds up about the implications. As I’ve said before, young people are quite capable of disagreeing with something they read on the internet.
Let’s also point out something important: some young people reading this may be transgender. 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, 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 to talk about. It's a Biology word and we can discuss it in that context. However it is still considered a controversial subject by many so I should probably make this clear as well:
What I post here does not necessarily represent OR disagree with the views of any institution I am associated with. I am writing from my own curiosity and a desire to explore Biological complexity.
So, with that in mind...
Walking the Line
I got the idea to write this article several months ago when I came across the website 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 people being transgender 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 only.
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 raise some difficult questions which Science cannot answer. What Science can do, however, is help people make informed decisions by trying to establish what the facts 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 their 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 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 rainbow of genders and sexes the trans community talks about. 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. If someone told me there’s a whole new bunch of colours for instance, 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 all stars in the night sky are the same type of thing. They certainly look that way. When we discover there are 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 with: “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 learned in primary school, but suck it up. Simply saying “well that’s a lot of words to learn” isn’t a very meaningful objection. It’s important to find out what members of the trans community want 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 anatomy. 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, 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: Someone who has a male gender in a man’s body or a female gender in a woman's body.
Transgender: A person whose gender does not match the gender/sex identities specified above i.e. male in a woman's body or female in a man's 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 The Rocky Horror Show).
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 and are neither male nor female.
Third Gender: This one is a little difficult for many to imagine but these people feel they have a gender (so they’re not agender) it just isn’t male or female. If you imagine blue = male, red = female, bigender would be purple, agender would be black and third gender might be something like green, not belonging 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 a 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 “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 supports the genderqueer movement.
Yes, there’s a lot to take in there (and this is 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 vocabulary, 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 ease 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 rejecting its body. A female person born in a man’s body can often 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 is very much yes.
As surprising as this may be, and difficult for some to swallow, it does seem to be the case that most of these genderqueer identities are biologically “authentic” 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 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 woefully 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. So let’s take a brief look at some of the main genderqueer identities.
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 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, every man has 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 females (i.e. people who identify as female but have a man's body) 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 the anatomy more commonly associated with that gender.
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.
The precise cause and effect of being transgender is still not known, 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 completely untrue.
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, being transgender 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 female in a man's body or vice versa.
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. Being transgeder 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 along 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 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...some of my jokes are less subtle.
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 grossly inaccurate. In fact, 20th Century Western culture seems 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 because people may not want to identify publicly as genderqueer, but the 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.
Transgender 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 are 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 in their teen years. Adolescence is a biologically complicated process, during which the brain changes significantly. So is it possible some people who identify as transgender in their teens will grow out of it later on? Well, yes, of course it is.
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, around 4% of people do get it wrong.
Many 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! 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. This guy didn’t just want attention sometimes (the way most people do) he couldn’t survive without it. He also liked to be the victim or 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 being transgender 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, 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 different in some way. 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 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 like 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 feel unsure about my gender, 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. So that presents us with an ethical question: how should we treat people who are biologically different to the norm? 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 and tone of the blog.
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 caught up in that.
I'll put my cards on the table: I enjoyed 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 likable characters 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.
The main characters are Scientists and although there’s a bit of pseudoscientific-crud to make the plot work, I was actually quite happy with how they were depicted. Now 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. 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 to rescue. Ghostbusters hits a home run here because all the main characters are bold, non-sexualised and pretty 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 needs rescuing. Nicely done folks.
Now, before I get slaughtered I know there’s a lot of made up stuff in the film alongside the genuine Science. But the way I see it, a film about people hunting ghosts with laser-hoses obviously isn’t going for hard-nosed accuracy. Besides, it’s rather hard to have a Ghostbusters movie if you don’t allow the existence of ghosts.
Ghostbusters acknowledges this need for skepticism however via Kirsten Wiig’s protagonist. She doesn’t believe in ghosts and thinks discussing them is pointless because they’re non-falsifiable. She gives a good speech about testing claims and refuses to believe in the supernatural even though she desperately and secretly wants to. Ghostbusters distinguishes nicely between “wanting to believe” and “actually believing”.
What’s even better is that as soon as she witnesses a 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 only made a decision once the evidence was in. And quite frankly, it's nice to see Scientists depicted as nice, funny people rather than the stereotype we usually get...
The Mad Scientist
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 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 a lot of them are surprisingly normal people. The “mad Scientist” image has become a cliché 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. It was warm, comfortable and the computer lab was cold. I may have just undermined my whole point.
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 in 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 Scientists are often weirdos
Yes. That's true. Scientists are sometimes socially backward. I myself have been described as eccentric although I’m not 100% sure what I do which makes me odd, but in a way it’s a bit of a compliment. To quote my father: “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 personal tics (looking in your direction Tesla), but I struggle to think of a great Scientist who genuinely belonged in a psychiatric hospital.
A madman is one who doesn’t have a grip on reality or doesn’t understand the implications of his actions. Scientists are 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 Biologist 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 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 wrong anyway) 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!
The major highlight of Ghostbusters for me 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, sings during moments of heightened tension and seems more interested in making silly jokes than engaging in the debates everyone else is having. She was 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 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 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 to battle, but as Scientific literacy increases (and I think it is) movies are beginning to reflect that. And, just to fight Armageddon’s corner, after its release public awareness of NEOs was heightened because although the film gets the details wrong, the message is correct: a NEO could wipe out life on Earth and we need to be ready for it.
In fact, there was such public outcry in America that the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics (May 21 1998) finally began addressing the issue of space-research and funding as a response. There is a slim chance Armageddon may genuinely have contributed to saving the world. Makes you wonder about Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.
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 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 step 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 accurately. 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 the 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 i.e. 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)
There are two kinds of people in the world. People who think Star Trek was campy sci-fi nonsense, and people who have actually watched it. It's colourful, sure. The special effects are dated, yes. And some of the storylines for some of the episodes are really cringy, ok. But as a Sci-fi franchise it was committed to grounded ideas. Doctor Who tends to "reverse the polarity of the neutron flow" to get out of plot problems, but Star Trek is rarely guilty of techno-babble. Most of the stuff they mention in the show is at least tethered to real Science. Not to mention the show's depiction of Science itself.
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 money has been abolished. People no longer work for profit or power, but to explore the Universe as one species among many. Star Trek is about people who want to seek out new worlds, to go where nobody else has gone. Star Trek shows what humanity could achieve if it took Science seriously. It shows a world united by the desire to learn.
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 tried to appeal to reason and logic. He wasn’t emotionless (Scientists do feel emotions I promise) but he could bypass his gut-instincts to think problems through with clarity.
And then let's not forget that the star of the show, James T. Kirk 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 engineering. He just also happened to be a cocky rogue which is what made him cool, but he respected logic and he respected Science.
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 optimistic world.
8. Avatar (dir. James Cameron)
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 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 explanation. 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 Na'avi saliva to the alloy structure of Unobtanium (a genuine term used to describe room-temperature superconductors, so laugh all you want, it’s actually the correct lingo) 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 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 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 time dilation. 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 a seventh. The story 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 otherwise 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.
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 undergone a cultural schism. 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.
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 reasonable premise. Mixing special effects with genuine footage of space exploration, the film’s real strength is not just in how accurately the physics is depicted but in how the Scientists are portrayed as real people 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 Science fiction films 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 standard hard-sci-fi read, but the film is a majestic, visually assaulting meditation on humanity, technology and God.
Arthur C. Clarke studied Physics and Mathematics at UCL, so it’s no surprise the Science in 2001 holds up 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 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 and the whisperings 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 little dialogue but, to me, this reflects the grandeur of astronomy and the sheer emptiness of space.
It’s an ambitious film, fusing philosophy with Science and 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 scientific wits 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 it couldn’t, it’s not hard 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 ingenuity to stay alive.
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 look badass. 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 only by the clever ways he survives. Every time you think he’s painted himself into a corner, he reveals a trap-hatch you never thought of.
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 first frame, 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”.
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 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 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 the story down. They're 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 using evidence and reason to make their point. They talk and think like real Scientists. The whole premise is that without Science the human race will be completely screwed (obviously something I agree with) and it does something more.
As a Scientist I often hear people say Science is 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.
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 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.
Carl Sagan was a genuinely brilliant Scientist whose work on astrophysics, evolutionary psychology and planetary Science changed the way we view ourselves and our Earthly home. He 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 bang on. Nothing goes astray.
The novel tells the story of mankind’s first contact with alien life, told through the eyes of Ellie Arroway, the astronomer who detects the signal. The book and film are both plausible explorations of how such a contact would be achieved and how earth-politics and human short-sightedness could interfere.
Once again, the story is the Science. 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?
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 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.
Star Trek: Wired
Europa Report: Space
The Martian: Amazon
I love science, let me tell you why.