Story Telling: Bevan Series 2018: Liz Neeley

This is what I did this weekend.

If you are interested in science storytelling and the scientific justification to using story to communicate science this presentation is the one for you. Liz is the executive director of Story Collider, the science engagement outreach. She teaches story telling for science. Please enjoy.

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‘It’s time to recognise the contribution arts can make to health and wellbeing’ | Healthcare Professionals Network | The Guardian

And second:

I feel frustrated when I hear of teachers telling their students not to study arts; there are no jobs we are told. Now I’m inclined to challenge that idea, but really like science, art is a fundamental expression of our humanity. Art is one of the reasons we do jobs: to create, express ourselves and to live. This article from The Guardian makes this clear. Expressive art builds resilience and long term mental health. (At least for older isolated citizens in Cambridgeshire and further afield in England.)

“The arts help meet challenges in health and social care associated with ageing, loneliness, long-term conditions and mental health”

Source: ‘It’s time to recognise the contribution arts can make to health and wellbeing’ | Healthcare Professionals Network | The Guardian

All the worlds a stage: from Garry Knight on FLICKR

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Subjectifying the Universe: Ursula K. Le Guin on Science and Poetry as Complementary Modes of Comprehending and Tending to the Natural World – Brain Pickings

Two quick comments this week. First:

On the subject of art and science both together. Ursula Le Guin saw poetry and science as complementary! I agree but I am inclined to see an overlap as well as complement. Poetry and science close dancing, rather than going for a walk together.

“Science describes accurately from outside, poetry describes accurately from inside. Science explicates, poetry implicates. Both celebrate what they describe.”

Source: Subjectifying the Universe: Ursula K. Le Guin on Science and Poetry as Complementary Modes of Comprehending and Tending to the Natural World – Brain Pickings

PhilippeCPhoto from FLICKR

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Science Communication: Thoughts in response to Linett et al. 2013

Science Communication: Thoughts in response to Linett et al. 2013

In 2013 a group of science communicators met at MIT in a workshop to bring together their experience in communication and to set up a research program. This was the initial phase of the Evolving Culture of Science Engagement project which produced a report which I summarize and comment on. As far as I can tell subsequent reports have not been published.

When I read this report my most important realization was that the term, “Science communication” brings to mind an old man in a white coat trying to pour knowledge into a kneeling citizen’s open and empty head. This approach is problematic, not the least because of the assumed power distance between the scientist and citizen. The term “engagement” is introduced by the authors to encourage a broader and more even relationship.

The second most important realization was the crystallization of thought along the axis of: Are we seeking to communicate or engage? Are we entertaining, informing, persuading or manipulating? What exactly is our objective? I have doubts that this question is easily answered. That is a deeply ethical question.

In the section below I take the summary points from the report and comment on them.

1. Story(telling):
2. Humour:
3. Mystery and the unknown:
4. Informality/science as part of everyday life:

Science communicators are becoming much more comfortable with the art of storytelling. I first came across this idea when reading the course descriptions for the core papers at Otago’s Science communication postgraduate course. Since then much of my study has confirmed the centrality of story in effective engagement. There are so many examples but for me Story Collider does this exceptionally well. Story Collider does not implicitly seek to teach, just scientists as people telling their stories in an informal, honest and often humorous fashion. These performances and the subsequent podcasts bring humour, mystery and the informal randomness of scientific life to the audience.

5. Artistic expression:

I understand science and art as complimentary activities, both seeking to understand and engage the universe. The two cultures argument is quite frankly dated and an obstacle to progress. I’m fascinated to see activities like, dance your PhD and Borks Biophillya that bring ideas from the two cultures of art and science together. That is not all; I have collections of chemists as poets and artists, Roald Hoffmann and Richard Feynman for example. And then there is the two minute thesis contest and countless short YouTube videos. All sorts of examples of science as art and art as science fill the internet.

6. Participatory engagement:
I know there are many projects seeking to bring science and citizens together; citizen science initiatives like PopSciNZ and Citizen Scientist at are New Zealand examples. This is an exciting growing area.

7. Emotion:

Bringing the arts and public into science and children unleashes the joy and emotion. Actually, professional scientists love their science. No-one spends years studying with little reward without a fundamental love of their science. The challenge for science is finding ways to comfortably expressing that joy and passion. That, of course, is one reason for media training of scientists.

8. Power, barriers, and belonging:

Until, a student challenged me I did not recognize power as a problem. I find this a multifaceted and difficult area. We must make science and scientific positions available to all. I was struck by the Indian Mars projects; the command center was alight with women in saris. In contrast the recent Rocket Lab launch was controlled by a roomful of white men in logo-branded black polo shirts. It seems to me we have a long way to go. In contrast, I always worked with an even mix of men and women. That is normal for me.

Maybe there is hope, at the undergraduate level women are strongly present but not so much as working scientists and in the media. It is also interesting that the science communicators who speak to me most clearly are women: I am thinking Nanogirl (Michelle Dickinson), Siouxsie Wiles and Jean Balchin.

In summary:

When I read this report my most important realization was that the term, “Science communication” is problematic, not the least because of the assumed power distance between the scientist and citizen. The term “engagement” is introduced by the authors to encourage a broader and more even relationship and conversation. That is a fair point.

The second most important realization was the crystallization of thought along the axis of: Are we seeking to communicate or engage: entertain or manipulate? What exactly is our objective? Are we ethically engaging the public and fairly representing our science?

One final point I have looked for follow up papers from the MIT report and found little directly from this meeting; never the less, there is an enormous literature on storytelling, the public engagement of science and science communication that I find worth studying. I plan further blogs on this subject.

Fly wings from Jinterwas on Flickr (The fly died of natural causes)

Full-Text Paper (PDF): The Evolving Culture of Science Engagement

Source: The Evolving Culture of Science Engagement (PDF Download Available)

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What do Women Want? What do Men want?

A recent paper has answers.

Both women and men want cuddling, romance and to enjoy expressing their sexuality.

The paper, Sexual diversity in the United States : Results from a nationally representative probability study of adult women and men” was published in PLOS|one in June 2017. Debbie Herbenick the primary author is from the Center for sexual health Promotion, School of Public Health Indiana University. Her co-authors have similar academic addresses. These authors report the results of their USA wide probability internet survey of 975 men and 1,046 women. Subjects anonymously answered questions on themselves, the sexual activities they had participated in and those they found “appealing”.

What did they find:

Common stuff
Men and women like romance, affection and sex; particularly masturbation and vaginal sex. I don’t find this surprising. What does surprise me is that generally taboo behaviours like sending erotic photos and reading erotic stories are also commonly enjoyed.

“Most (>80%) reported lifetime masturbation, vaginal sex, and oral sex… Common lifetime sexual behaviours included wearing sexy lingerie/underwear (75% women, 26% men), sending/receiving digital nude/semi-nude photos (54% women, 65% men), reading erotic stories (57% of participants) More Americans identified behaviours as “appealing” than had engaged in them. Romantic/affectionate behaviours were among those most commonly identified as appealing for both men and women… “

Kinky stuff:
A smaller proportion of men and women thought about and had experienced kinky stuff: BSDM and so forth. These activities were most likely to happen when respondents were younger and at an earlier experimental stage in their relationship.

Respondents reported sexual histories that included, “public sex (≥43%), role-playing (≥22%), tying/being tied up (≥20%), spanking (≥30%), and watching sexually explicit videos/DVDs (60% women, 82% men). Having engaged in threesomes (10% women, 18% men) and playful whipping (≥13%) were less common. Lifetime group sex, sex parties, taking a sexuality class/workshop, and going to BDSM parties were uncommon (each <8%).”


Something like 10% of respondents reported being in committed relationships and had not had sex for at least a year. The authors flag this as an area for further study but they had observed that older women respondents found sex painful and older men were troubled by erectile dysfunction. If this 10% are not receiving or giving affection, this is deeply troubling.

“Given that nearly one-third of women and nearly one-quarter of men had not engaged in sexual activity with anyone in the last year (consistent with NSSHB data)–and about 1 in 10 partnered Americans considered themselves monogamous but sexless—it is important to acknowledge that sizable proportions of Americans do not engage in partnered sexual activities during certain periods of their lives. Subsequent research might attend to reasons why people abstain from sex, even when they have romantic relationship partners, as well as the positive and/or negative impacts on their lives and relationships when this occurs.”

Future reports:
“Given the large amount of data presented in the current paper, analyses are presented only by gender and age and not, for example, by self-identified sexual orientation or other background characteristics such as education, race/ethnicity, relationship status, or sexual experience. Future manuscripts will be able to address the existing data in a more detailed manner.”


One other thing. I have been surprised that although this paper was summarized in the international scientific press and the international press, I have not seen it discussed in the New Zealand press. I doubt that sex is a less popular pastime here and don’t understand why science writers, journalists and editors think New Zealanders are not interested.


What struck me about this paper is that men and women enjoyed sex, and that romance and affection were the most appreciated activities. Hugs and kisses, and roses and chocolates are appreciated. What is most encouraging is that we can hug and kiss regardless of age and health; this gives me hope as I am getting older. That is good news. I also appreciate the breadth of sexual expression. Even the most uncommon activities represent a large number of sexually responsive adults having fun. I’m expecting the results of this paper are generally applicable, at least in Western countries and most likely broadly. Let’s accept this breadth of desire and experience and enjoy.

Researchers have published a new US nationally representative study of sexual behaviour, the first of its kind to capture a wide range of diverse sexual behaviours not previously examined in the general population.

Source: Romance and affection top most popular sexual behaviors — ScienceDaily

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7 ways reading improves health, according to science | TreeHugger

This inforgraphic from Global English Editing makes great points, reading helps: live longer, reduce stress, relaxation and sleep, slows mental decline, helps depression, increases happiness and builds social skills and links to others but I want to question this as I mistrust simple narratives. Still please click on the infographic there is plenty to think about.

From better sleep and increased happiness to a longer life in general, the benefits of reading go far beyond just a good story.

From Global English Editing’s wonderful infographic.

1. It is linked to a longer life
. Presumably by reducing stress and so forth but reading in absence of exercise and proper nutrition and self-care would be problematic.
2. It reduce stress. As a habit rather than taking constructive action would be unhelpful.
3. It promotes relaxation and sleep, unless reading too long prevents the reader from getting adequate rest.
4. It defends against Alzheimer’s, dementia and mental decline
, as much as it encourages engagement and mental growth reading will help.
5. It helps with depression. Exercise, sleep, sunlight, good food and appropriate medical care also required.
6. It boosts happiness. As part of a whole sensible programme of action.
7. It builds social connections. Really, reading can become isolating.

I think we need to remember, Jared Diamond’s advice, “If it is a simple one factor explanation most likely it is wrong”. Mind you seven makes an impressive list.

Source: 7 ways reading improves health, according to science | TreeHugger

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Researchers Identify Gene Variants Linked to Synesthesia | The Scientist Magazine®

I am fascinated with synesthesia, just imagining the experience of listening to music and seeing colours like nebulae or aurora through my eyes. That is how I imagine sound to colour synesthesia would be. This gift is called, chromesthesia and is one specific kind of synesthesia.

Synesthesia is when the normal five senses are unusually cross-linked. Richard Feynman saw text and equations as coloured, Lord sees colour when listening and writing music. While imagining the song “green light’ she experienced green so strong she could not see outside the taxicab she was riding in. Its a relatively common gift. Synesthesia is found in between one to four percent of us.

It’s thought that incomplete decoupling of brain connections during early development leads to this. My understanding is that when born we all mix up the senses but as most of our brains develop the cross-links fade. Only a lucky few remain, synaesthete. Synethesia runs in families and was thought to have a genetic component.

Recent research is supporting this observation.

What the researchers did was select three families with sound-colour synesthesia expressed over three generations. The genetic profiles of the individuals were analysed and groups of genes were found within the families but different groups of genes with different families. With groups of genes implicated but not the same ones across families. The research also gives a thorough background to the genetic understanding, well worth the read.

I can’t help but think; what a wonderful area of study.

A whole-genome analysis of people who experience colour when they listen to sounds points to a handful of genes involved in neural development.

Source: Researchers Identify Gene Variants Linked to Synesthesia | The Scientist Magazine®

How I imagine synesthesia. Photograph from Martin Palmqvist on Flickr

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A lifetime of regular exercise slows down aging, study finds — ScienceDaily

I think this is useful to know. And now we will take Bart, our dog, for a walk.

A group of older people who have exercised all of their lives, were compared to a group of similarly aged adults and younger adults who do not exercise regularly. The results showed that those who have exercised regularly have defied the aging process, having the immunity, muscle mass, and cholesterol levels of a young person.

Source: A lifetime of regular exercise slows down aging, study finds — ScienceDaily

Before our walk

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Natural mummies from Predynastic Egypt reveal the world’s earliest figural tattoos

I never thought I would be interested in receiving a tattoo but a recent article has got me thinking. Bruce Parker writing for The Edge, wrote an essay titled, “Science made this possible”. I think that would be a wonderful tattoo on my arm.

It turns out tattoos are ancient, dated to at least 3300 BC, although I expect our hunter gatherer ancestors take the figure to much earlier. And science tattoos are wonderful.

Source: Natural mummies from Predynastic Egypt reveal the world’s earliest figural tattoos

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Researchers achieve ‘Olympic ring’ molecule breakthrough just in time for Winter Games — ScienceDaily

This is just so… cool. I’m still a chemist!

More than 7,000 miles away from the snowcapped peaks of PyeongChang, scientists in Florida have unlocked a novel strategy for synthesizing a highly versatile molecule called olympicene — a compound of carbon and hydrogen atoms named for its familiar Olympic ring shape.

Source: Researchers achieve ‘Olympic ring’ molecule breakthrough just in time for Winter Games — ScienceDaily


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