Sunday, 3 October 2010

Sugata Mitra at the Scottish Learning Festival

Who needs teachers?
The high point of this year's Scottish Learning Festival, for me and many others, was the keynote by Sugata Mitra, professor of educational technology at Newcastle University, and the man whose experiments all over India have convinced him that "education is a self-organising system where learning is the emergent phenomenon."

In other words if we give children a computer and the right conditions they can teach themselves anything. A "friendly but not knowledgeable mediator" is useful. But a teacher is not required.

I had interviewed the professor by telephone for TES Scotland the previous week, but he had kept some good stuff back for his keynote. I'm going to try to capture the content and flavour of that talk here, as well as some of the humour that makes his talks so enjoyable - the humour of a man, gently amused himself and generously sharing it with his companions.

"Having experimented for years in these very remote places," he told the packed Clyde Auditorium, "I came to the remotest place I know - Gateshead."

He chuckles, and so do we. "That's how I start my Indian lectures," he says, in a storytelling aside: 'Five thousand miles from New Delhi, across the River Tyne, there lies the hamlet of Gateshead."

But while humour is the medium at times, the message could not be more serious, and Mitra's commitment to the research he launched 11 years ago with the first hole in the wall computer - and took all over the subcontinent and beyond - is readily apparent.

"It sounds like a lifetime's work," I had commented, after listening to his description of what he had done and what he still wanted to do - an extensive longitudinal study that would determine if his methods "had really levelled the playing field".

His hesitant response had surprised me. "Yeah, well, it looks like. One gets into these things, you know. People sometimes ask if I have this passion for teaching children. I have no such passion. I have a curiosity about how the brain works. I like to know why people think the way they do - why they remember, why they forget. We need to understand what is happening inside the neural circuits - once we know that we will really understand education."

But if the initial passion was a scientist's search for knowledge and understanding, the motivation now is broader and deeper. "I wanted to know the physics of thinking," he had told me. "But that landed me into children's education and this work - which is so important socially that my conscience will not now allow me to get away from it."

The scale of the social problem all over the developing world is illustrated by India, he says, where schools and teachers are in such short supply that conventional efforts to educate are bound to fail. Over 120 million Indian children do not go to school, he says, because they have none to go to. Making up that deficit would require tripling the number of schools and teachers.

"There is not enough money to do this, nor enough time. The problem is just too large to solve with traditional linear methods of scaling up."

Dust-devils and DNA
So is there another way? Mitra's experiments have convinced him that there is, he tells his audience, and that it lies in the idea of a self-organising system, a concept well-known to physics. There are also similarities, he points out, with the "spontaneous order" of the economist Friedrich Hayek.

"That is what we are seeing in my experiments, and several educationists have approached the idea. The difference is that when they were talking about these ideas the internet did not exist. I have an unfair advantage. I can stand on their shoulders and go further."

The stock-market is a self-organising system. So is the weather, he explains to his audience. "A dust-devil is a self-organising system. There is a bit of a breeze and suddenly the structure forms and starts to move around. A self-organising system is one in which the system structure appears without explicit intervention from outside the system."

The capacity for surprise is what distinguishes such systems. "They show emergence," says Mitra. "This is the appearance of something not previously observed. We react with surprise when a little Tamil-speaking girl says 'replication of the DNA molecule'. It's emergent. It happens from within the system."

This is the reason, he suggests, that children were able to teach themselves how to use the hole-in-the-wall computers he left without instructions, in cities and villages from the Himalaya to the southern coastline. His response to the curious kids who would gather as he was building these - and building in robustness to the weather - becomes a little refrain in his keynote.

"What should we do with this," the children would ask Mitra in their own language, for most spoke no English. "I don't know," he would reply. "And anyway I'm going."

Lingua Franca
A few months later he would come back to find the children using the computer and the English words needed to do so, having taught themselves and each other in the meantime. He describes one seminal experiment in Hyderabad - "a sprawling, south Indian city with many private schools for the poor.

"They exist because they promise to teach English. So parents pay a few pounds a month to have their children educated, because being able to speak English makes a huge difference to their future.

"The schools do their best, but native English speakers do not go into the slums of Hyderabad to teach. They have to use local teachers who speak a language called Telegu. They have a very strong accent which is almost unintelligible."

Again the amused aside, shared with the audience: "If you thought Geordie was difficult then go to southern India."

Given this language barrier, what Mitra did next - setting up a computer in Hyderabad equipped with a speech to text program - should have been pointless. "You talk into the computer and it types the words, " he explains. "I trained it in a neutral British accent. So when the children spoke into it the computer typed complete nonsense, which made them laugh. I told them I would leave it for two months and they should try to make themselves understood.

"The children said, 'How do we do that?' and I said - and this is the crux of the method - 'I don't know. And anyway I'm going. "

Two months later a couple of very interesting things had happened. The children had improved their English, which was now clearer and more intelligible, both to an English-speaker and to the computer. But they had also done something more fundamental and richer in educational implications.

Stick to facts?
"They had invented their own pedagogy," Mitra tells the audience and pauses to let that sink in. "I learned that not only can children achieve an educational objective but they can invent the pedagogy itself."

He contrasts this with the conventional classroom in which "we take it on ourselves to make the pedagogy" and the children are "the recipients of it."

The realisation that youngsters in his experiments were doing far more than learning facts and some skills came slowly, Mitra says. In the streets of Delhi, where he had set up his first hole-in-the-wall computer, the kids had now begun to Google their homework. "Their teachers were telling me that their English had become fluent and they had become deep learners."

He was doubtful at first. Were they doing more than just copying off Wikipedia? Was there any real understanding being developed?

By the end of the second phase of experiments, around India and beyond, Mitra had demonstrated that groups of children could teach themselves to use a computer, navigate the internet and improve their English. He had begun to suspect they could do much more.

So when the opportunity arose to pursue his research in England he bought himself an overcoat in November 2006, he says, "and came to Newcastle after 45 years in Delhi." The scepticism he met at Newcastle University challenged him to devise more ambitious tests, which in turn led to deeper understanding of the implications of his research for education in the developing and developed world.

The hypothesis he now decided to test experimentally was that "Tamil-speaking 12-year-olds in a Tsunami-hit village in southern India could not teach themselves the biotechnology of DNA replication on their own".

Method of the grandmother
The experiment disproved this hypothesis. The kids could teach themselves biotechnology - but only at first to a level of 30% in tests. On their own, in a foreign language, from a starting point of 0%, this was already educationally startling, says Mitra. But it was still a fail. He began to ponder how to help the children to pass.

The answer he hit upon - a "friendly but not knowledgeable mediator" - became a vital piece of the jigsaw that Mitra was beginning to call minimally invasive education. "A local organisation had an accountant, a young girl, who was great friends with the children and played football with them," he tells us.

"I asked if she would help them pass the test. She wondered how, when she didn't even study science at school. I said: 'Use the method of the grandmother. Stand behind the children and admire them. Say: 'How did you do that?' 'Can you do a bit more of this?' 'I couldn't understand a word of that, if I was your age.'"

The young "grandmother" did a fantastic job, Mitra says. "Two months later the children's test scores were up to 50% - the same as they'd have got in formal schooling.

"It is all in this month's British Journal of Educational Technology."

Mitra now began testing his ideas in schools in England and Australia, where the biggest problem he encountered, understandably, was getting the teacher out of the room. Digging deeper into the question of real education or regurgitation led to a surprising discovery, he says.

Mitra set half a dozen GCSE science questions to a primary class working in groups at computers. The fastest group got all of them right in 20 minutes, the slowest in 45. When tested as individuals on the questions the class scored an average of 76%, he says "This is incredible for 10-year-olds on GCSE questions.

"But the teacher said, 'So what? They just Googled the answers or looked up Wikipedia.'"

First prize
So two months later Mitra came back and tested that same class again, individually and without access to a computer. "I knew I had hit the jackpot when I took back the answer sheets and corrected them," he says. "Because the average score was ... 76%.

"There was photographic recall of what they had done, because they had done it themselves."

The same experiment has been repeated many times since, he tells us, with similar results. Indeed one experiment in a Gateshead school recently threw up an even more startling outcome, which he is "still struggling to explain", he says.

"The post-test results after six months were higher than the originals."

The teacher's explanation is that the children kept thinking about the questions, coming back to them, investigating, finding out more for themselves.

Mitra has summarised his findings about Self Organising Learning Systems, in a document that also provides practical advice to schools interested in trying them out: "These techniques and facilities can be constructed in any school and will result in significant improvement in children’s learning and examination performance," he says.

"You cannot force a self-organising system to do anything - any more than you can force an apple tree to make apples."

But what we can do, he says, is understand the nature of a self-organising system and create the right conditions for emergence. Mitra's experiments oblige us, as teachers, to re-examine our expectations of pupils. "The bars that we set for our children may be way lower than the bars they set for themselves," he says.

They also shed a 21st century light on the age-old question of the curriculum. What should schools be teaching children? "I think this is very closely related to your Curriculum for Excellence," he tells his predominantly Scottish audience.

"We are looking at two skills - reading comprehension and information search and analysis. We have to measure carefully improvements in both of these."

Sugata Mitra concludes his Scottish Learning Festival keynote with a statement of the hypothesis that has emerged from a decade of research in schools across the world - ever since that first hole-in-the-wall in the slums of New Delhi. "Education is a self-organising system where learning is the emergent phenomenon."

Right now this is speculation, he points out. But if it's true it will lead us to a physics of education and a hitherto unheard-of ability to predict educational outcomes.

"I believe a physics of education lies just around the corner," he says. "And that therein lies the future of education."

Sugata Mitra's keynote presentation at the Scottish Learning Festival 2010.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Science writing and readability

Science erects high barriers to otherwise well-educated people, some of whom wear “I'm hopeless at science and maths” like a badge of honour. But the level of ignorance among our decision-makers and opinion-formers is far from honourable. It is shameful and dangerous.

The UK went to war in Iraq because members of parliament couldn’t analyse simple science and engineering, in weapons inspectors' reports that were readily available and in the Prime Minister's 24 Sep 2002 speech to Parliament about weapons of mass destruction.

Lacking the basic knowledge that would allow them to distinguish between “significant quantities of uranium from Africa” and “fissile matériel”, the MPs concluded that Saddam would have a nuclear weapon “in a year or two.”

Which was of course the explicit intention of Tony Blair, who used an old lawyer's trick of telling the truth but not the whole truth, and allowing the lie to happen in the listener's mind. By playing on MPs' ignorance of the difference
between natural and fissile uranium – and of the fact that this is the major technical challenge in making nuclear weapons – he frightened Parliament into voting for war.

Honest and effective science communication matters. Without it we launch illegal wars. We are duped by ministers and journalists. We melt the icecaps and pollute the seas.

So there is a huge burden on people who try to explain science to those who don’t yet get it. And especially on writers and scientists who aim to communicate science to children and young people.

There is no point in talking to Sarah Palin or Christopher Monckton about climate change. Or indeed anything else. These mature adults have made their minds up long ago. The same can be said for many other adults, far less irrational, malign or deluded than this perverse pair.

Kids and science
Children are different. All of them have opinions, but most are not yet set in stone. Kids grow, learn, assess evidence and change their minds – and are far more capable of doing so than most of us realise.

If we can find a way to keep the flame of science curiosity that burns brightly in most primary schoolchildren from flickering out when they hit adolescence, the world might hav
e a chance.

But it's not easy to keep teenagers interested in science. Traditional science teaching, aimed exclusively at future scientists, didn’t even try. The new curricula, with their focus on science for citizenship and making connections across the curriculum are much more promising.

But these need to be backed up and kept fresh by communications from the front lines – by direct contact with the people who are out there pushing back boundaries, getting excited, working long hours, making discoveries, doing the science.

Written word
Which brings me back to the barriers. There are
plenty. There are strong emotions stirred by past school science humiliations. There is the difficulty of some science concepts. There’s the maths. There’s the arrogant tone some scientists and writers take when ridiculing unscientific beliefs.

All these repel rather than attract non-scientists.

But I'm not going to talk about any of those here. Instead I want to look at a barrier that has been barely recognised. Which is surprising because it may well be the highest hurdle of them all.

Let me tell you a story – short and relevant. Until recently historians believed the Scots came originally from Northern Ireland. But it’s a myth. It has no foundation in evidence, as Glasgow University's Ewan Campbell has shown. Instead the west of Scotland and north of Ireland were part of a common culture for centuries, united by the sea.

Modern eyes look at big patches of blue on a map and see only a barrier. But the ocean was a highway to our ancestors.

When it comes to the written word, we writers and scientists are like ancient Celts surveying the sea. We see beyond it to old friends, other lands, new excitements. Most children and young people look in the same direction and see salt spray, high waves and hidden danger.

All this was brought home to me gradually but forcefully when trying to get inside the head of my dyslexic son, and when teaching English and science classes in secondary schools after 20 years of R&D in industry.

Scientists and writers are comfortable with words. Much more so than most people. I’m a writer, physicist and teacher, which gives me three overlapping perspectives. I know that what is taught is rarely what is learned, and that the reader seldom hears exactly what a writer is trying to say. Getting stuff out of one mind into another is much harder than many of us realise.

This is why almost everything written by scientists or science writers is unreadable by young people, or indeed most adults.

I am not talking about published papers, whose apparent obscurity masks clarity for colleagues. I’m referring to newspaper articles and blog posts that are supposed to be communicating science to non-scientists.

Most fail. The main reason is that the words and sentence structures in otherwise well-written pieces are too difficult for most readers. You might argue that science is hard and technical words unavoidable. This is true. But it is possible to write about hard science in a way that is accessible to young people. Younger than you might imagine.

I've seen cooperative learning classes with 10- and 11-year olds, who were using readable texts to research, discuss and present sophisticated science concepts, and astonishing even their teachers with the science they were capable of getting to grips with.

So let's take a look at the readability of some recent articles by science writers. Readability statistics are often criticised because good numbers don’t necessarily mean good writing. But this misses the point. We’re not using these stats to pick winners but to eliminate losers - or show where more effort might get us over the line. Good readability stats are a necessary but not sufficient condition for conveying science to young people in writing.

So what does the table three paragraphs down tell us? Well it’s a small sample. But this is an exercise I’ve done many times on many writers. It is not something I’ve only just discovered.

Real Science
I realised long ago that readability was a widespread and widely underestimated problem in science communication. It was one of my motivations in launching the Real Science website.

I'm going to repeat the readability analysis on these 12 writers and maybe a few more in the coming weeks, as they continue to produce articles. This should build a better picture of how consistently readable or otherwise they might be for younger people and non-scientists.

In the meantime it is interesting at least, and maybe significant, that the three most effective writers by readability - on this single exercise - are Alice Bell, a university lecturer in science communication, Alom Shaha, a science teacher and communicator, and Mark Changizi, a research scientist and author.

And that the three least effective – Mark Henderson, Alok Jha and Ben Goldacre – are all science journalists.

TitleWriterSourceReading easeGrade levelFog indexComment
Physicist, chemist & zoologist
Alice BellGuardian677.610.1Easy
King of the UniverseAlom ShahaBlog708.511Easy
Levels of real world wizardryMark ChangiziPsychology Today599.313.2Readable
The shark-toothed dinosaurEd YongBlog5310.313.1Hard
The grand designRobin McKieGuardian4911.815.1Hard
Analysis of PepsiGateMartin RobbinsBlog5211.713.4Hard
Rich-world diseasesDebora MacKenzieNew Scientist4412.114.2Unreadable
Glow in cattle's eyesKatia MoskvitchBBC4912.314.8Unreadable
If the world is going to hellDavid BielloScientific American4512.415.1Unreadable
Blind prejudiceBen GoldacreBad Science4613.216.4Unreadable
Humpback dinosaurAlok JhaGuardian3513.814.9Unreadable
Potential of genomic medicine

Photo credits
Images 2, 3 and 4 are by my highly artistic son, Douglas W. Blane.

Note on readability statistics

“Reading ease” in the table above is Flesch readability. “Grade level” is Flesch-Kincaid. “Fog index” is Gunning-Fog.

I obtain the first two using the built-in readability tool in Word – except when the second comes out at 12.0. In that case, since Word rounds down to 12.0 for this metric, I take the Grade level from this online analysis tool. That also provides me with the Fog index figures.

For the comment column I have crudely assigned one word to sum up readability for a target audience of young teenagers, as follows: Grade level >12 is Unreadable, (10-12] is Hard, (7-10] is Readable, and ≤7 is Easy.

The accepted wisdom is that texts aimed at a wide audience generally need a Fog index less than 12, and that targets for the other two indices should be 60-70 and 6-8. Note that readability increases as Flesch increases, but decreases with Flesch-Kincaid and with Fog.

For comparison, Reader's Digest has a Flesch readability of about 65. Time magazine scores 52, while Harvard Law Review is in the low 30s.

My own observation is that readability stats of one writer in one publication tend to be fairly consistent. But good writers vary their style to suit their audience. When I write for Glasgow University alumni, my Flesch-Kincaid often exceeds 12. For The Guardian it comes out at 10-11, while my articles in Times Educational Supplement and Real Science tend to cluster around 6-8

Sunday, 12 September 2010

High Flight

by John Gillespie Magee, Jr. (June 9, 1922 – December 11, 1941). He was an Anglo-American aviator and poet who died in the air over Lincolnshire during World War II, while serving in the Royal Canadian Air Force.

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of—wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air....

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark nor even eagle flew—
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

Saturday, 31 July 2010

God and nuclear deterrence

The following is an article I wrote originally for the website

Des Browne was Minister of Defence in the Blair and Brown governments and MP for Kilmarnock from 1997 to 2008.

Father Joseph Boland is now the parish priest at St Bride's Catholic Church in West Kilbride.

I'm reproducing the piece here because of the continuing relevance of the arguments.

God and MAD
As Des Browne strides up to me and demands to know who I am, the answer briefly escapes me. It is on the tip of my tongue and will come to me in a moment, I am sure. But whoever I am, this close to a combative Minister of Defence is not where I would like to be.

The occasion is a debate about the morality of replacing Trident, organised by one of Browne’s constituents, Father Joe Boland of St Matthew’s Church, Kilmarnock.

In opening the debate the priest had done a fine job of demolishing the pro-nuclear arguments: “The government says we don’t know what the world will be like in 30 years’ time, so we need nuclear weapons to keep us secure. But if nuclear weapons equal security, then every country in the world should have them.

“If Iran cannot have nuclear weapons when faced with an immediate threat from nuclear powers, what right do we, based on some future threat? It is sheer hypocrisy.”

Deterrence is doomed to failure, he points out, because it must work without error until the end of time. “We have been incredibly lucky so far.”

When Browne stands up he looks edgy but determined. The politics are complex, he says, and the morality unclear. We must prevent more countries getting nuclear weapons, while those that have them disarm gradually and multi-laterally:

“That is the answer to the charge of hypocrisy. That is how we will achieve a nuclear-free world.”

In the meantime, deterrence is no more complicated than self-defence: “I learned when I was young that if I didn’t want to fight I had to carry myself in a particular way. I had to generate a sense, on the streets of Scotland, that I could look after myself.”

He still does, I realise, after he has lost the vote, and spots me taking notes of a conversation with a constituent. On the topic of hypocrisy, Sarah Hall is challenging him on accepting the Minister of Defence post, after attending a rally against the invasion of Iraq.

“I wasn’t there. You’re wrong about that,” he tells her.

She starts to ask about his youthful support for CND, when he notices my notebook and strides over to me. I identify myself and ask a question – not the best question to a man you’ve just met, who already feels under attack.

“I didn’t realise until today that you were brought up as a Catholic …” I begin. But he interrupts, moving closer.

“What has that got to do with anything?” he demands.

“I was wondering about Father Boland’s closing remark,” I explain as rapidly as I can: “That in the end his opposition to replacing Trident springs from his Christianity. Jesus taught us to turn the other cheek and love our neighbour. He would never support nuclear weapons.”

Browne responds that the churches disagree on war and nuclear weapons, but very few of them are in favour of unilateral disarmament. Then he goes on the attack.

“Are you a Christian?” he asks me.

“No,” I say. So he changes tack.

“Were you in favour of intervening in Kosovo?”


“What about Afghanistan?”

“Well…” I prevaricate.

“There you are…” he says and I interrupt, misunderstanding.

“Don’t give me that lawyer’s stuff about having to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Afghanistan is complex – both militarily and politically.”

“Of course it is. That’s my point,” he replies. “International issues are always complex. It’s all very well saying ‘nuclear weapons are morally wrong’, but we live in a difficult and dangerous world.”

True enough, I think to myself, casting my mind back 25 years to when I was a physicist with a young family, working for Rolls-Royce on the next generation propulsion system for the Navy’s nuclear submarines.

The system that propels the Vanguard class, the largest, most powerful submarines ever built in Britain. The system that carries Trident.

It is time for Des Browne and Father Joe Boland to leave. They are having dinner together at the priest’s home.

“Nice talking to you,” Browne says to me, offering his hand. His grip is firm but not crushing. Deterrent.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Goldacre on humanities graduates

I have some sympathy with each of the following statements individually. But coming together in one article they constitute a pretty relentless attack on "humanities graduates" and do nothing to heal the Two Cultures divide.

They also perpetuate the thoroughly unhelpful stereotype, not just among humanities graduates but also younger people with a leaning to arts, language or social sciences - who considerably outnumber the science fans - that physical scientists are cold, arrogant and superior and regard themselves as almost infallible.

Goldacre's thoughts
“It predictably generated a small flurry of ecstatic pieces from humanities graduates in the media, along the lines of science is made-up, self-aggrandising, hegemony-maintaining, transient fad nonsense;”

“Statistics are what causes the most fear for reporters, and so they are usually just edited out, with interesting consequences. Because science isn't about something being true or not true: that's a humanities graduate parody.”

“But it also reinforces the humanities graduate journalists' parody of science, for which we now have all the ingredients: science is about groundless, incomprehensible, didactic truth statements from scientists, who themselves are socially powerful, arbitrary, unelected authority figures.”

“And humanities graduates in the media, who suspect themselves to be intellectuals, desperately need to reinforce the idea that science is nonsense: because they've denied themselves access to the most significant developments in the history of western thought for 200 years, and secretly, deep down, they're angry with themselves over that.”

All quotes from Goldacre, B., 2005. Don't dumb me down. The Guardian, 8 Sep. Available at:

Thursday, 20 May 2010

First Cell Controlled by Synthetic Genome

Scientists have developed the first cell controlled by a synthetic genome. They now hope to use this method to better understand the basic machinery driving all life and to engineer bacteria specially outfitted for fuel production, for example, or environmental cleanup.

The research team has already chemically synthesized a bacterial genome, and they have transplanted the genome of one bacterium to another. Now, Daniel Gibson and colleagues have put both methods together, to create what they call a “synthetic cell,” although only its genome is synthetic. In this case, the synthetic genome was a copy of an existing genome, though with added DNA sequences that “watermark” the genome to distinguish it from a natural one.

In the future, the scientists would like to design more novel genomes that would make bacteria capable of performing specific tasks that could help solve energy, environmental or other problems. The team first synthesized the genome of Mycoplasma mycoides, then transplanted it into Mycoplasma capricolum. The new genome “booted up” the recipient cells.

Although fourteen genes were deleted or disrupted in the transplant bacteria, they still looked like normal M. mycoides bacteria and produced only M. mycoides proteins, the authors report. “If the methods described here can be generalized, design, synthesis , assembly and transplantation of synthetic chromosomes will no longer be a barrier to the progress of synthetic biology,” they write.

To support public discussion and understanding of synthetic biology, Science will be making this paper and the accompanying News piece freely available online, at, starting Thursday evening, 20 May.

Article #19: "Creation of a Bacterial Cell Controlled by a Chemically Synthesized Genome," by D. Gibson; J.I. Glass; C. Lartigue; V.N. Noskov; R.-Y. Chuang; M.A. Algire; M.G. Montague; L. Ma; M.M. Moodie; C. Merryman; S. Vashee; R. Krishnakumar; N. Assad-Garcia; C. Andrews-Pfannkoch; E.A. Denisova; L. Young; Z.-Q. Qi; T.H. Segall-Shapiro; C.H. Calvey; P.P. Parmar; J.C. Venter at J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, MD; G.A. Benders; C.A. Hutchinson III; H.O. Smith; J.C. Venter at J. Craig Venter Institute in San Diego, CA.

Contact: J. Craig Venter at (email). Daniel Gibson at (email).

Reproduced from email by the AAAS Office of Public Programs.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Down the glen

Photo by Douglas Blane. Killearn Glen
Killearn Glen May 2010

According to recent research, just five minutes a day of moderate exercise in green spaces has a measurable effect on human beings - of which I am one. So I decided to include a walk in the village glen in my early morning routine - which is how I like to think of my daily, aimless shambling around and bumping into furniture.

The sun-dappled leaves, the blackbird's song, the bluebell banks were all wonderful, but I now have a problem. Morning before breakfast is precisely the time when my brain works best and the words come easily.

I first noticed this when laid up after spinal surgery and memorised huge swathes of poetry, from Morte d'Arthur and the Lady of Shalott to Tam o' Shanter and The Cremation of Sam McGee.

It was very easy until I'd eaten, when lines I'd just memorised suddenly had big holes in them, and I'd have to start all over again. I'm guessing it's the difference between the brain getting all the blood and oxygen it needs and having to compete with other parts of the body. It was a repeatable effect and one I've confirmed many times since.

So here's the problem - walk in the glen in the morning sun, which makes me feel great, or write, which I also enjoy, pays the mortgage and puts food on the table?

It's not easy being a writer.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

New Labour is a deadly parasite.

George Monbiot had a fantastic piece on New Labour's record, who they are and what they stand for, in the Guardian Mon 3 May 2010.

Here are his most telling - and shocking - paragraphs:

"While Labour has liberated billionaires, it has trussed up the rest of us with 3,500 new criminal offences, including provisions that allow the police to declare any demonstration illegal. It has introduced control orders that place people under permanent house arrest without charge or trial. It has allowed the US to extradite our citizens without producing evidence of an offence. It has colluded in kidnapping and torture. Britain now has more CCTV cameras than any other nation, and a DNA database that is five times the size of its nearest competitor. The number of prisoners in the UK has risen by 41% since Labour took office.

This government blocked a ceasefire in the Lebanon; sacked Britain's ambassador to Uzbekistan after he complained that the regime was boiling its prisoners to death; gave aid to a Colombian military that collaborates with fascist death squads; announced a policy of pre-emptive nuclear war; and decided to waste our money on replacing Trident. But worse, far worse than any of this, it launched an illegal war in which hundreds of thousands have died. This is the government that colleagues of mine on the Guardian want to save.

There's a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii that colonises the brains of rats, altering their behaviour to attract them to the scent of their predators. The rats seek out cats and get eaten, allowing the parasite to keep circulating. This is New Labour. It has colonised a movement that fought for social justice, distribution and decency, rewired its brain and delivered it to the fat cats who were once its enemies."

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Physicist on the farm

I've a friend who combines science communication, brewing and being a farmer's wife. Hard to beat at this time of year, it would seem:

"Hey, my beer won best best at the Portsmouth beer festival! Bit of a shock, think they were being nice to a beginner or they were a bit scared of me (I'd had 6 pints and I went roaming around isntructing people to drink my beer).

I have had a lovely day today, mended some beer pipework then made lunch and then went into the garden this afternoon.

Weeded and planted. Heaven. Me and the worms love the soil. I can sit in the sun all afternoon preparing a good seed bed. This afternoon I did carrots and beetroot. Removing stones, removing perenial weeds (dandelions and dock mostly), and breaking up the soil. I love the smell and the texture, and the excitement of planting the seeds.

When you get up close to the soil you see all manner of things, little red spiders, beetles, crysalis, etc but my favourite are the worms, especially the really big fat ones.

Some of my worms are 20cms long. I hope they dont mind me touching them for a bit (I'd be very scared) but their scaly bodies are beautiful."

Sunday, 4 April 2010


I love what Jesus has to say about living in this world, although I don't believe his message about the next one.

So I'm on the mailing list for the homilies delivered by a wise parish priest down in Ayrshire, who seems particularly close to Jesus.

Below is Father Joe Boland's homily for Easter Week. If you want more of his homilies, you can find them at the St Matthew's Church website.

For more on the man's thinking, take a look at a post I wrote at Scientific Blogging, following a nuclear arms debate between Father Boland and Des Browne, then Secretary of State for Defence.

Father Joe Boland homily for Easter Week
One of the things about the Holy Week Liturgy is that, before we even begin, we know how the story ends. Even as we try to stay with Jesus through the agony in the garden on Holy Thursday or follow him on the road to Calvary on Good Friday, we are already thinking about the Resurrection and making sure everything is ready for Easter. But it wasn’t like that two thousand years ago. For the original disciples what happened during the final hours of Jesus’ life was a complete disaster. Everything they had believed in and hoped for was falling apart. They had come to see Jesus as the one the ancient prophets had spoken of and, to their utter dismay, he had been crucified like a common criminal.

And on Easter Sunday morning it was no different. At the moment of Resurrection there was no angelic choir waiting outside the tomb to greet Jesus with the Alleluia chorus from Handel’s Messiah, no adoring crowds to witness the moment of triumph. The whole of Easter day in the gospels is a story of disillusioned and frightened people failing to recognize Jesus and refusing to believe he had risen. And it’s only if we can get in touch with that Easter, the real Easter, the doubt-filled and fear-ridden Easter of history, rather than the romantic Hollywood version of it we see in films, that we can begin to understand what the Resurrection means in our own lives now. Quite simply, the experience of many in the world today is much closer to that of those early disciples two thousand years ago than it is to the Handel’s Messiah version, and it’s this that I invite you to reflect on this morning.

For so many of our contemporaries, you see, the world is a terrible place. All around us too, as was happening during the original Holy Week, things seem to be falling apart. I meet people who no longer watch the News on TV, so depressing do they find it all. Everything that is bad and unhealthy seems to be on the increase, from teenage pregnancies to drug taking right through to the current financial crisis. And within the Church things seem no better. All over the developed world congregations are falling and, to make it worse, there are hardly any young people to be seen in our churches. And then, of course, there is the scandal of sex abuse which is causing and will continue to cause many to struggle with issues of faith until such times as the Church as a whole has the courage to face up to its deep-rooted causes.

These are difficult times, and as such they are an opportunity for us to enter in some way into the experience of those who lived through the events of what we now call Holy Week but which felt far from holy at the time. They knew nothing then about the Resurrection just as for many today talk of Resurrection and the presence of the Risen Jesus among us is just words. I constantly meet church-going people who tell me that they cannot see any evidence of God in the world around them. And yet I can say to you today with absolute certainty that God is at work deep within everything that happens. Jesus is risen, alive and present among us, even if, like the people on the first Easter Day, we struggle to recognize him. So where is he? Well, that’s a bit like asking where the air we breathe is. He, like it, is everywhere. But, based on Resurrection stories from all four gospels, I would like to suggest three ways in which we might begin to recognize him.

And the first concerns Mary Magdalen. In a passage we will hear at Mass on Tuesday morning, St John has her stooping down and looking into the tomb, weeping, totally unaware that Jesus us standing behind her. A friend of mine who lives in Jerusalem often laughs at pilgrims visiting the church of the Holy Sepulchre on the grounds that it is the only place in the world of which the bible says, ‘He is not here.’ And if we spend our time bending down looking into tombs and weeping over the past we will never see Jesus. Jesus is not to be found in the past, in old hurts, in resentment nursed over years, in what once was or used to be. If we are to recognize the Risen Jesus in our lives, then we, like Mary, must leave the past behind, turn round and stop looking into tombs.

And the second scene is the upper room on the evening of the first Easter Day. There, the eleven were gathered together in a locked room, filled with fear. And of all the tombs we can crawl into, none is more debilitating and crippling than fear. And so Jesus calms their fear, opens their minds to understand the Scriptures and tells them that they will be witnesses to the resurrection to the ends of the earth. Within days, the Spirit of Pentecost will transform these weak, fearful men who at the first sign of trouble had abandoned Jesus and run away, into men of deep personal faith. And until that happens to us and our minds, too, are opened up to understand, not just the Scriptures, but many other things too, our fears will continue to cripple us and prevent us becoming the witnesses to the presence of Jesus in the world that we are called to be.

And the third scene I invite you to contemplate this morning is the road to Emmaus. Those disillusioned and disappointed disciples whose hopes had been crushed still exist in the Church today. Those first disciples, like so many in our own time, could not see God in what was happening to them. And yet the Risen Jesus was with them as they walked along. And the truth we must come to realise is that that same Risen Jesus has been with us every step of our journey too. All of us – and again I say this without fear of error - have had moments of grace and insight over the years, moments when the veil covering our eyes has been removed for a time and we have seen realities normally hidden from us. The trouble is that we forget them and live as if they had never happened.

And so I invite you this Easter to take time to think back over your personal journey to Emmaus. Ask the Risen Jesus to show you times you have experienced his presence along the way. Look forward in hope, not backwards in fear. Choose life in all its shapes and forms and sooner or later you will recognize him at the breaking of bread.

We begin our prayer this Easter by praying for the world at this moment in its history. We are living through a time when millions are filled with fear and anxiety about the future. The great epidemics of our age are stress, depression and anxiety resulting, in many cases, from the pressures of living in a consumer-driven society. And so we pray that the Good News of Easter will fill us with hope and that, by showing the people of our time that there are better ways of living, we will share that hope them.......Lord hear us

The hope we speak of is no naive optimism. Bad things have always happened, happen still and will continue to happen in the future. To be a hope-filled people we will often have to dig deep, as Jesus himself had to dig deep during the agony on the garden or as he hung dying upon the cross. We will sometimes have to trust when there is no obvious reason for doing so. But our trust is in the God who turns death into life and we pray for the grace to believe in his love no matter what happens........Lord hear us

As long as Mary Magdalen stood looking into the tomb she was never going to see the Risen Jesus. For that to happen, she had to turn away from what was empty and lifeless and look in a new direction. The past had nothing to offer. And so we pray for the grace we need to put the past behind us: to let go of old hurts or resentments; to embrace new ways of thinking; to accept and embrace the inevitable changes and developments of history and so recognize the Risen Jesus in our lives now..........Lord hear us

As the two disciples left Jerusalem and began their journey home to Emmaus, they were filled with a deep sense of disappointment. Their hope had been that Jesus would be the one the prophets had spoken of and now their hopes and dreams were shattered. And yet, without them realising it, Jesus was with them. And so we pray for the insight we need to recognize the ways in which Jesus has been with us every step of our life-journey, especially at times of pain and disappointment..........Lord hear us

On the first Easter Day, the disciples were huddled together in the upper room, paralysed by fear. Faith will always mean asking question, not understanding and, in some cases, spending many years struggling with doubt. But what prevents us becoming the people God calls us to be is not doubt but fear. Doubt can be our friend. Fear is always our enemy. It is fear that prevents us becoming the people God calls us to be and we pray for the grace we need to overcome our fears here in this parish.........Lord hear us

Millions today have lost faith in life after death. They cannot understand it and so it cannot be true. To lose faith in life after death, however, has profound effects of the way we live. If there is no life after death then our only hope of happiness lies in material things. And yet these constantly disappoint and fail to deliver the happiness we seek. And so we pray that the men and women of our time, seeking happiness in all kinds of strange places, will come to understand again that happiness ultimately lies in God alone..............Lord hear us

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Much more about cushions than I wanted to know

Wee exchange of emails with a friend to show what can happen when you give too much encouragement to your feminine side - or someone else's:

Me: I know how you feel. Been getting texts from 6 different family members all day, each with different probs needing shared or solved. Pure coincidence that they're all women no doubt.

Friend: Its not a coincidence but it says more about you, that you know a lot of women. You make it so those women like texting you, perhaps they see you as an honorary woman?

Me: Just as long as I don't have to talk about cushions. I can't do cushions.

Friend: I can do cushions. I don't choose to do cushions, or ever encourage cushions, but if everyone else is doing cushions, I can do them. Its friendly and painless. I like large ones made by nomads best, or ones I have made for myself and giant bean bags. The big ones you can sit on on the floor by the fire (with a whisky) and sort of snuggle into. My mum gave me a standard sized cushion last year for the Oxfam bag, when I took the outer cover off there was a beautiful older cushion cover inside. It was a sixties geometric print and really lovely colours - those dyes you only see in original sixties fabric. I kept it in the lavendar loft and you can admire it when you next stay. You never know it might persuade you that cushions can be lovely and merit a little chat. The thing is 99.99% of the worlds cushions don't merit any chat as they are ugly and mass produced. The world would be nicer if cushions were more individual and if they were used instead of supposedly decorative. Comfort, good posture, insulating and individual. I think you could carry a cushion around with you to protect your arse from the cold, maybe I will make you one (I, of course, dont need a cushion).

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Glow and worksheets

As I explain in the comments section of the TES Scotland two-page feature on website blocking (1,2), relevant material for this came in late and in the end we had too much of it. This led to rather severe editing and cutting at short notice.

However the research for the article – talking to people, surveying practice across the authorities, studying national policies in Scotland and England – took me several months.

Right at the start of that period, last October, I had a wide-ranging conversation with Ewan McIntosh, in the course of which he raised the subject of Glow and expressed several opinions about its educational value at that time. To support these, Ewan cited recent research on the effects of virtual learning environments on teaching and learning.

In writing the article in late February, I relied on my notes and memory for what Ewan had said. After such a long period there was a risk in doing this, to which I was insufficiently alert.

I have now taken the time to listen to my full audio recording of the 80-minute conversation. This confirms what Ewan suggested yesterday (3), but was unable to be certain of – because of the intervening time and because he, quite naturally, took no notes or recording.

Ewan never, at any point in our conversation, said, “Virtual learning environments like Glow are the modern equivalent of the worksheet.”

What he did say was “When educators use these systems [VLEs] they begin to see teaching as an administrative task to get through. It’s the modern equivalent of worksheet syndrome.” In my notes-aided memory those words and another comment he had just made about Glow became compressed and concatenated.

The quote is a serious error on my part. After such a long time had elapsed, and given the recent debates about Glow, I should have used notes, memory and audio recording in writing the article, rather than relying only on the first two.

For some problems with the article, such as the misattribution of words to Neil Winton and the failure to link online to its other half, responsibility is shared across TES Scotland writing, editing and online teams.

This error with Ewan’s words is entirely mine. I sincerely apologise to Ewan for making it.

Online references

  1. Are schools in the dark on internet safety? 5 March 2010.
  2. Action plan for e-learning leaves some holes in the road to excellence. 5 March 2010.
  3. Clarifications: Glow, VLEs, School filtering. 7 March 2010.