Thinking is one of the great human abilities. Anyone can do it, anytime, anywhere. One of the best places in the world to be is inside one’s head, thinking. If you love to dwell in thought, perhaps you are made for the academic life. Perhaps you are meant to be a ‘creative’: producing art, music, novels, or some other product of original thought. Perhaps you have the DNA of an engineer, designer, or systems analyst – you enjoy problem solving, the ultimate hard think.
Yesterday, the second of August, was Earth Overshoot Day for 2017. This date “marks the date when humanity’s demand for ecological resources and services in a given year exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year.” As of today, we carry a planetary-sized debt. We are running in the red. This most horrible of days only started in 1971. Before that, humans did not have the population size nor the technological capacity to ‘out-eat’ our larder.
Where can you share space with royalty, science rock stars such as Stephen Hawking, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Peter Cox, real rock stars like Brian May of Queen, moon walkers and other astronauts and Nobel Laureates? The Starmus Festival. The stream of achievements proved as intense and dense as expected given the star-line-up, and yet certain aspects of the proceedings proved transcendent
The public is turning out to be, whether knowingly or not, animal ethnographers. The diversity of pets, farm animals, and wild animals they track with lens is exposing the rarest of behaviors. These behaviors not only make intriguing viewing but serve to widen our thinking about the animal world and perhaps diminish our iron-gripped hold on cleverness. Might we be less willing to destroy creatures whom we believe are ‘smart’?
Cute and heartwarming videos of dogs fill the internet. My favourite is the bacon dog tease, but others catch my attention because they reveal extraordinary animal behaviours. For example, there are many of dogs helping other animals, like opening the back door to let in a friend. Dogs are our best animal friends, but there is a new contender. The pig might not be agile enough for Frisbees, or into making ‘guilty faces’, but like dogs, might save your life in the future.
Politically, 2016 has been a wildly, tumultuous year. We go into 2017 on a completely new footing. One that has many of us fearing we face a treacherous fall. Now is the time, more than ever, to reposition our global footing and keep climbing. It’s impossible to wrap up a year of writing a science column without talking politics. Deep and divisive political change is overshadowing science.
I just found out that a scientist whom I greatly admire is writing his first book. Only he’s not. He’s hired a writer to do the heavy lifting. The hired writer’s name won’t appear on the cover. He’s signed on the dotted line in the invisible ink. Ghostwriters don’t write about ghosts, but waft around in the background like them. Unlike real ghosts, such behind-the-scenes authors deal in reality, turning the ideas of ‘living’ authors into words for them to take credit for.
Even when speakers are proficient in English, Scientific English can still present challenges. Some bill it as ‘a foreign language’ even for native English speakers. Anyone who has learned how to use it might first laugh at that comparison and then grit their teeth on the grain of truth. Learning conversational English is a big enough task. Getting good enough to build a career in science fluently using Scientific English is a Herculean task.
Do you have back pain? Statistics show you likely do. Or you have had it in the past or will in the future. Back pain can be a million different things, and you can get it an equal number of ways. Until you’ve suffered it, you don’t realise how disruptive it can be. Trying to fix back pain is a superb way to make people understand the power of scientific method and how to use it.
We are all reeling from the vote for Brexit. No one in my scientific circle was for exit. Now all are heavily lamenting it. Even cursing it on Facebook. Scientists voted to stay. Seems the entire science sector was pro-Europe and for many good reasons. Many of the best UK science labs are filled with brilliant researchers from across the EU.
In science, perhaps the most famous recent award is for the prediction of the existence of the Higgs Boson particle, discovered at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. Overall, the most famous recipient ever is likely Marie Curie. She went down in history as the first person to win two. She took Nobel Prizes in 1903 and 1911 for getting radium and polonium out of pitchblende, with her own elbow power.
But this question of conscience goes beyond science. There is one clear axis along which we are all asked to act in life – in favour of ‘self’ or ‘society’. Do we always do what is best when it comes to deciding the balance? In all pursuits there is an innate tension between the interests of self and society. This tension has existed as long as we’ve had human society of any complexity.
Many say now is the century of biology, the study of life. Genomics is therefore “front-and-centre”, as DNA, is the software of life. From staring at stars, we are now staring at DNA. We can’t use our eyes, like we do in star gazing, but just as telescopes show us the far reaches of the Universe, DNA sequencing machines are reading out our genomes at an astonishing pace.
2016 is a leap year. A leap year, or intercalary year, is a year with an extra day inserted to keep pace with the seasons. In the Gregorian calendar this falls every four years on Feb 29th. On Leap Day this year a wonderful piece of science was published about an equally rare part of nature – giant viruses.
Announced on January 13th by President Obama in his eighth and final State of the Union Address, the multi-billion dollar project will be led by US Vice President, Joe Biden, who has a vested interest in seeing new cures for cancer. Using genomics to cure cancer is being held on par with JFK’s desire in 1961 to land men on the moon.
2016 is here. The New Year is a time for renewal and resolution. It is also a time for dieting. Peak enrolment and attendance times at gyms occur after sumptuous holiday indulgences in December and again when beach wear is cracked out of cold storage in summer. As the obesity epidemic reaches across the globe we need new solutions. We need better ways to live healthy lifestyles.