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    Hacks and Headlines Part 2: A Press Huddle with Brian Cox

    By Rupert P Cole, on 8 September 2012

    I find it odd that with Sir Paul Nurse, I attended a press conference, but with Brian Cox a huddle. Why? 

    I heard that one young woman at Professor Cox’s appearance in a festival highlights show let off a loud shriek of excitement. But were the hardened hacks expected to give a similar reception, nestling closely around Cox, clamouring to bathe in his celebrity aura?

    Talk of auras reminds me that we were not just in the presence of a celebrity, but a celebrity physicist – a rare breed. There have been a few – Hawking, Feynman, Einstein, Faraday – but Brian Cox was the latest.

    When the floor opened for questions, the dense press plasma fell into a nervous silence. Some beforehand had boasted about ignoring his science, and grilling Cox on his music career – allegedly he was only a bit-part keyboardist for D:Ream.

    No such courage surfaced though. Cox, breaking the admiring hush, joked to the throngs of journalists, “you probably don’t have any questions…” (more…)

    Where are they? Are we alone? And when will we know?

    By Rupert P Cole, on 7 September 2012

    “Dan?  Dan?  Dan? Dan? DAN? DAN? DAN? …” – Alan Partridge

    The search for extra-terrestrial life isn’t exactly a success story. But our incessant desire to find some drives us to look. Wednesday night, a bunch of us crammed into Aberdeen’s Waterstones to hear UCL’s space scientist Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock speak on the current chances of there being life “out there.”

    Maggie’s main job in science has been in engineering satellites and telescopes – a talent she cultivated very early in her life. When she was 14 she built her own telescope, which was 150mm in diameter.

    Besides The Clangers, she told us, this was her first real contact with space. Her enthusiasm and curiosity is inspiring. Recently awarded an MBE for her work in science communication, one of her outreach schemes takes school children on “Tours of the Universe”.

    Luckily for us, then, our guide in our search for alien life had seen the universe, knew the sights, and even the lingo.

    I see myself as a translator, removing the jargon and highlighting the wonder– she remarked in 2006, regarding her role as a recipient of the Science and Society Fellowship she holds at UCL.

    Looking for life in the universe is, I imagine, a pretty arduous task. Since it’s a fairly big area to cover (billions of light-years), and getting bigger all the time, we might reasonably pose the question: where to start? (more…)

    Dissection, Darwin, Dawkins and Dr Death: An interview with Simon Watt

    By Rupert P Cole, on 6 September 2012

    Simon Watt is an evolutionary biologist and all-round expert in science “edutainment”. I caught up with Simon at the British Science Festival. (You can find audio from the interview at the bottom of this post).

    Simon gave two talks at the festival. In “Dissections Uncut,” he ran through some of the material that didn’t make the final edit of Channel 4’s Inside Nature’s Giants – a series he co-presented.

    My personal highlight was the exploding whale video. Yes, exploding. I should clarify that in Simon’s footage no dynamite was used (though this did happen once in Oregan – worth a google). Rather, when whales decompose, gas inside builds up, which can then result in an eruption of organs.

    Let’s talk about sex
    Simon’s other talk, “Sperm Warfare”, took us on a biological ride through the world of sex, from weasels to humans, and many in between. He warned us:

    “At the end of the show you will probably think I’m a pervert.” (more…)

    Hacks and Headlines: a press conference with Sir Paul Nurse

    By Rupert P Cole, on 5 September 2012

    This, being my first press conference, was a slightly strange, exciting and revealing experience. Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society and Director of the Francis Crick Institute, was here to take questions on a hotly-anticipated forthcoming Nature paper.

    The paper is a genome-wide association study (GWAS) and there is word that this may be the next big thing in genetics research. Paul  gave us a brief back-story.

    Ten or fifteen years ago, it was thought only about 1-2% of the human genome was biologically functional, the rest considered to be “junk DNA” with no known function. Recently, however, a lot of evidence has been gathered to suggest that the remaining 98% is doing a lot more.

    Sir Paul was predictably asked whether this new research will be a major “breakthrough” in medical genetics. Coolly dismissing the media’s obsession with breakthroughs, he replied that he preferred to describe it as “just another brick in the wall” –  he must be a Pink Floyd fan.

    (more…)