Archives for the month of: June, 2014

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In some jobs it’s outwardly obvious what you do. Butchers wear aprons and wield cleavers. Bakers wear whites covered in flour, and sweat in the heat of their ovens. Candlestick Makers…well, I’m not really sure what they wear, but I suspect I would know one if I met one. Perhaps, there would be a tell-tale spattering of wax, and a whiff of silver polish. Doctors used to wear white coats, without the flour, but with added stethoscopes. Now they have been told to ditch the coats and they drape the stethoscopes around their necks and roll up their sleeves, lest they be mistaken for the porters.

Scientists do not have this kind of ready physical identity. Yes, there is the idea of the white-coated technician wearing purple-latex gloves and safety-glasses, but not all science is done at a bench in a lab, or at least not that kind of lab. What of theoretical physics, geology fieldwork, statistical analysis, public health research, or clinical work? Add to this the fact that much of a scientist’s work is done in isolation and they have even less of an identity. No one sits by them as they craft a new equation or pipette some DNA, or shares their preliminary evaluation of new data. Scientists sit alone when they read a paper, and when they wonder. In truth, it can sometimes look as if a scientist is doing nothing at all.

What do you do, if you don’t pour bubbling chemicals from one flask into another while chuckling, or make occasional bangs accompanied by foul smelling smoke? Just what do you spend your day doing if there are no white rats involved, or contorted glassware, or Bunsen burners. No Bunsen burners? What kind of science do you do exactly? Is it even science?

My son, when he was six or seven, was asked at school one day what his father did for a living. ‘He’s a doctor,’ he replied. When his teacher probed and asked what kind, he confidently answered, ‘One that types.’ I think he knew I had once wielded a stethoscope and even a scalpel, but all I did now was type.In truth all he had ever seen me do was sit at a keyboard in my study, writing first my doctoral theses and then later all the papers and reports that had become my stock in trade. To him my job was to write. It has taken me many years but I now see that his analysis of my job description was an accurate one. And, when you are asked what kind of doctor you are, or what kind of scientist or what kind of engineer or what kind of academic, somewhere in there you are probably going to have to concede that you are one who types.

Those bits of our professional selves on show, our outward work, are relatively few. But, what they do consist of are our words. When we write about our work and when we speak about it we share our science with others. The actual doing of science may be a relatively solitary activity, but the communication of science is where we join an international community of purpose. Here we share our ideas, our data and our conclusions. We publish our work so that others may read it and we speak about our work so that others may hear.

In doing so, we must be passionate, enthusiastic and excited about our work. This is after all what we do; what we are. This is our life. If we are not excited about it, we should be. If we are not enthusiastic, how will we ever persuade anyone else to be? If we feel no passion, perhaps we are in the wrong job.

The importance of our ability to communicate cannot be underestimated. Regrettably, poor communication skills are common in science, but perhaps we should not be surprised by this for we devote so little time to developing these skills in comparison to those critical faculties we prize so highly, such as pattern recognition and data analysis. We don’t train our students how to present or to write. Instead, we make assumptions about their abilities and bemoan the fact when they let us down. Often we do not teach by example, flouting even the most basic rules for good communication, thinking that the power of our science will see us through. It won’t. Science is as much about communication as analysis and as much about the ability to write as the ability to question.

Perhaps you gave up English at school in favour of the sciences and mathematics. You wanted to concentrate on what you enjoyed and you found chemistry more enjoyable than Wordsworth and physics more stimulating than grammar. The trouble is, now you find yourself with all that science education and training and how do they judge you? By what you write and how much you have published.

You have found yourself having to write reports and essays and even a hefty dissertation. If you kept at it, the next Everest was a whole book in the form of a PhD thesis. And, now they expect you to write even more. In academia you will be assessed almost exclusively on the number and quality of your publications. Your papers will define you. You will also find yourself called upon to write reviews, to summarise your work in abstracts, and you will spend many hours writing and re-writing grant applications that will determine your future, and often the future of those with whom you work. Suddenly, offloading a subject like English, that seemed boring and unnecessary at the time, now seems less than clever.

Thus, as a scientist you have to be able to write, and to write well, to communicate your discoveries and to stay in business. No matter what stage you are at—undergraduate, postgraduate, post-doc or faculty, you need to be able to write, and if you can’t, or feel that you need help, how are you going to learn?

If we are to do our work justice we must learn how to speak about it and to write about it for our peers as well as those who fund it and those whom it affects—the public. We must spend time acquiring these skills and passing them on to others, and let go of the assumptions that they come automatically with the trade. Left to our own devices, scientists are poor communicators—we write badly, we speak nervously and we often rely on slide shows that are shameful. But this should not be surprising because scientists are just people and, except for the gifted few, all people who are untrained in professional communication skills are just as deficient.

As a doctor that types, I have spent years learning how to write as well as I can so I can communicate my science. I realised early on in my career that it was by my words that I would be judged and that they needed to be the best I could muster. Whether I succeeded is for others to assess, but I feel passionately that we must teach those in training to write and to present. And, we should stop duping them into thinking that all that matters is the science. Of course, the science matters, but in these days of Research Excellence Frameworks and citation indices, where reputations and CVs are built on conference presentations and lists of papers, the ability to communicate your work successfully and secure its publication has never been greater.

Science is too often the illiterate cousin of the arts, struggling to be understood, fighting to be heard. It is the poorer for that and it is up to scientists themselves to put it right. What we do is too important to do otherwise.

© Allan Gaw 2014

If you need help with your technical writing, why not take a look at this eBook, which has just been published. Now available as a Kindle download, WriteEasy, is for the daunted. It begins by emphasising the importance of being able to write effectively and addresses the commonest problems encountered by writers. It offers ideas to get started and to overcome any fear of the blank page. It goes on to provide strategies for generating text, editing it and considering its style.

The book is packed with useful advice and tips to help any writer overcome his or her fear and dislike of writing and to become more effective.

And the companion volumes are WordEasy and SpeakEasy.

My books available on kindle:

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Behind our contact lenses and capped teeth we have stone age minds.  We are probably cleaner now than we have ever been, but we are also fatter.  And, we are also certainly older. We have found cures for diseases that killed us in the past, but we are now living long enough to suffer new ravages our forefathers never knew.  Some good, some bad, but what is certain is that the complex game we play called ‘civilisation’ is nothing more than an illusion.

John Maynard Keynes, the economist, acknowledged this in a 1938 essay (My Early Beliefs): ‘Civilisation’ he said, ‘is a thin and precarious crust, erected by the personality and will of a very few, and only maintained by rules and conventions skillfully put across and guilefully preserved.’

We see the truth of this everyday.   We hunger and thirst, and our most basic sexual impulses impact upon almost everything we do. Look at advertising, at the clothes we wear and watch the way a man looks after a woman in the street and you will see the way every human male looking for a mate has ever looked.

And we rage. The suited executive, groomed by Armani and scented by Chanel can revert to a club-wielding Neanderthal in traffic. Road rage is nothing more than a modern name for an ancient instinct—the need for dominance.

We fight for our territory, and we fight for our children. We belong to tribes and hunt and gather in packs. And, if left to our own devices, we choose to believe in spirits and gods and ghosts. We are frightened by what we do not understand, and we are greedy in times of plenty preparing for leaner days.

If you don’t believe all this, look about you. Have you watched the first day of the Boxing Day sales, or how people behave at a sporting event? Women go to the bathroom in groups and men work together in teams to trap the ball in a net. Watch how people fill their plates at all-you-can-eat buffet tables and follow their horoscopes in the belief that unseen forces in the arrangements of stars thousands of light years away will control and ordain their destinies. We live in a world dominated by technology, but we are fundamentally the same as we were ten thousand years ago—a period in evolutionary terms like the blink of an eye.

This notion has sobering consequences. If we are cavemen in suits, then what the modern world offers is a confusion. For example, we are programmed to gorge in times of plenty in preparation for the lean days or weeks ahead. In the past, our very survival would depend on our capacity to eat and lay down body fat. But, what happens when Tesco is around the corner and open all day, every day. The same programming operates, but there is never a lean day. Result: rampant obesity.

We are vibrant and vital in our youth but were never designed to live long enough to see old age. Twenty, thirty, maybe forty at a push, but cavemen would rarely have seen their fifties and the idea of being post menopausal would have been unthinkable. Suddenly cardio and cerebrovascular disease, most cancers and certainly Alzheimer’s Disease were never meant to be, and exist only as the unfortunate consequences of our success.

Civilisation, whatever it is, must, it seems, be a very thin veneer. It is easily scratched to reveal a much coarser frame beneath.

The English actress Glenda Jackson won two Oscars before going on to a life in politics. Despite her success, she remained unaffected by the glamour of Hollywood. When asked about the whereabouts of her Academy Awards, she said her mother had them and that she had polished them so much that the gold plate had worn away revealing the base metal beneath. A metaphor for the superficial glitz of the movies if ever there was one.   All that glisters surely is not gold, and perhaps we should be equally skeptical of any pretence to civilised behaviour by our fellow man. Our manners, our language, our dress are nothing but a very thin layer of gold, plated on to our leaden selves.

Despite the obvious truth of all this, can we be rescued from such a pessimistic outlook? Although we are animals surely we are also something more. Five thousand years of art, and music and literature cannot be dismissed quite so readily. Keynes’ crust may be ‘thin and precarious’ but it is surely not meaningless— rather it is a beginning. As we, as a species, step out into the light, and in evolutionary terms that is all we have done so far, it is perhaps not too paltry to have painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, split the atom and sequenced the human genome. Yes, we are still cavemen, but with our eyes now lifted to the heavens and our sights set on a future we plan to shape.

© Allan Gaw 2014

My books available on kindle:

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