Tuesday, 24 June 2014

News from the Chelthenham Science Festival - Day 4 - Are we bubble wrapping our kids? - Professor Tanya Byron

This talk was given by Professor Tanya Byron, clinical psychologist, writer, broadcaster and Professor for Public understanding of Science.

As a clinical psychologist Byron is probably best known for her television series' 'Little Angels' and 'House of tiny tearaways', where she gives advice to parents who are struggling with their children's behaviour.  Byron gave a humorous introduction to her talk by confessing some of the times where she has been challenged as a parent, including a time where she was struggling to get to sleep and a toddler temper tantrum in a public place.

She then asked the audience to try to remember the place where they had most happy memories of playing as children.  Concluding that these places were outside and without the supervision of parents, Byron went on to suggest that many of today's children do not have these experiences.  She postulated that as parents with access to 24 hour media constantly portraying horror stories, modern parents have developed a paranoid sense of protectionism towards their children.  Parents witness horrific events on the television which they internalise.  They then pass this anxiety onto their children.

As a result of this paranoid protectionism, Byron postulates that children are prevented from playing in outside unsupervised situations, which are generally not that risky, so they stay at home and spend a lot of time online, which she believes is ironic, because the online world is significantly more risky.

Byron reports that there has been a significant increase in children referred to child and adolescent mental health services with anxiety disorders.  She then proceeded to give some statistics about presentation and prevalence of mental health disorders. In summary 75% of non dementia mental health disorders present by age early 20's, and yet only 6% of government funding is allocated to child and adolescent mental health services.

Byron believes that through overly protecting our children we are denying them the opportunity to take risks and experience failure, which she believes is key to developing emotional resilience.  Byron also lays the blame firmly at the feet of the current education system which she states is too focussed on target driven academic achievement and pushes children too hard for too long.

These were hard hitting messages for the parents amongst us and I came away challenged to 'let go' a little and also not to look upon failure so negatively.  Byron also balanced the negativity by pointing out that the current generation are displaying many truly positive features, including the fact that they are more socially and politically active and drink and substance abuse less than their parents' generation.

Byron was witty and engaging but didn't pull her punches with this hard hitting message.

Communicating STEM - A review of the Cheltenham Science Festival

If you have read my previous blogs you'll know that I had an opportunity to attend the Cheltenham Science Festival on a public engagement bursary from my University, the University of Surrey.  I had a fantastic time at the Cheltenham Science Festival, and I managed to rise to the self set challenge of reviewing at least some of the talks I attended (see previous blog posts).

As a requirement of the bursary, I was asked to report my experiences of the Festival, so here is my final review of the whole experience: 

The Cheltenham Science Festival

Is there somewhere you can go to explore ideas, unrestricted by the boundaries of your own experience? Is there somewhere where you can put your brain through its paces, with material that you don’t usually encounter?  Yes there is, it is called the Cheltenham Science Festival (CSF).

For a week in June, Cheltenham becomes a modern day Athens, where the big ideas of the modern era are discussed, not only in the lecture theatres but also in bars and cafes on every street corner.  

I attended the CSF as one of 18 research students from the University of Surrey and UCL.  We represented a diverse range of backgrounds but were united by our common enthusiasm for public engagement.  The CSF sparked lively debate and gave a forum to share collective experiences and develop our own learning. This learning across disciplines was a rare opportunity which encouraged me to think about my work in new ways.  Three weeks later, I find myself referencing material that I heard at the CSF and I suspect I will be doing so for a great deal longer.

One role of public engagement is to satisfy the public’s appetite for scientific discovery. The programme at the CSF did not disappoint, with a broad topic range represented over the week.  As a developmental health scientist I was challenged by experts in familiar topics; ‘Noise, a sound concern’, Where does creativity come from’, ‘Identifying Autism’, ‘Are we bubble wrapping our kids?’  and ‘What is school for?  In contrast, I was amazed by discoveries in disciplines out of my comfort zone (‘Higgs: the particle at the end of the universe), tackled with topics that stretched my understanding to its limits, (‘Infinity’) and had a go at something completely new (Raspberry_Pi programming).

During the week I engaged in some of the current ethical debates raised by technological advances.  For example, in ‘Brain Stimulation’ Vincent Walsh questioned why we seek to enhance human abilities and in “The future of human enhancement’ Robert Winston gave a chilling reminder of eugenics when discussing genetic modification in medicine.  Both demonstrated effective public engagement by communicating evidence objectively within an ethical framework, but also by seeking public opinion during questions.

Public engagement inspires the next generation of scientists.  I invited my family to join me at the weekend to attend some of the family friendly events, including the science of explosions (‘Kaboom’), noise (‘Sound Science’) evolution (‘Life fantastic’), engineering (‘Engineering the world’), documentary making (‘BBC - The secret life of cats’) and natural history (‘Deadly Pole to Pole’).   At the Discover Zone they talked directly to the scientists and tried their hand at a range of activities.  It was great to see them enjoying STEM outside of the classroom.

It was invigorating to witness so much enthusiasm about STEM. Despite some heavy cloudbursts, the CSF zone was a constant hive of activity.  At Cheltenham there was clear evidence of an appetite and need for public engagement and for one week in June, that need was met.  

Friday, 6 June 2014

News from the Cheltenham Science Festival - Day 3

News from the Cheltenham Science Festival - Day 3

In addition to 'Infinity' reviewed in my last blog, I also attended 2 other events on Day 3.

First was learning to code using Minecraft for Raspberry Pi.  The first thing I noticed was that the average age for this workshop was considerably younger than all the other events I have been to.  The  attendees were mainly school aged boys who were far more competent at the task in hand than I was!

This workshop used the Raspberry Pi which is a very cheap computer which looks a bit like a small, credit card sized circuit board with plugs taped around the outside.  It plugs into a keyboard, monitor and mouse, costs around £25-£30 and enables the user to learn about coding.  The Raspberry Pis we used also had a version of Minecraft, a cult level online game which is a bit like building lego online, and the object of the workshop was to learn how to use simple coding to make things happen on Minecraft.

Already feeling considerably outwitted by the other attendees I bravely attempted the first task, which was to go onto Minecraft and build a house.  Given that I had never used Minecraft in my life I was beginning to wish I had been able to smuggle my 10 year old son in with me.  Thankfully I sat next to a very considerate 15 year old who was able to get me to navigate around the screen and I finally managed to build a wall.

We were then shown how to write several different pieces of code using Python to get Minecraft to do different things; to teleport the player to a different location, to leave a trail of flowers when walking around and to automatically build a house.  We were also given worksheets to enable us to try out other codes at home.

It was great to learn a bit of coding and see your commands take shape within the game.  I have to say what impressed me the most was simply witnessing a really sophisticated computer interface all coming from this circuit board with plugs!  I'm a huge fan of Raspberry Pi and given that it doesn't cost much more than a book, it's a revolutionary computing tool for anyone who wants to learn to code.  I'll certainly be getting one for my family.  Also, the teaming up of Raspberry Pi and Minecraft is a sure winner for encouraging many young people to learn coding.

Next I went to see 'Identifying Autism', a talk given by Emily Jones, cognitive psychologist and winner of the L'Oreal UNESCO prize for women in science.  The talk was presented as an interview with the chair of the session, so was delivered in a question, answer format.  Jones defined what autism is, a neurodevelopmental disorder that is diagnosed through recognised behaviours which are; stereotypical behaviours, restricted interests and social communication (sometimes including language) difficulties.  She highlighted that diagnosis is difficult, and diagnostic criteria differ not only over time (the USA has just published a revised criteria in their diagnostic manual the DSM V) but also geographically, with different criteria in Europe and the USA (Europe uses a World Health Organisation criteria the ICD 10).  One feature that has emerged from the recent changes to the USA criteria is that the term 'Aspergers' Syndrome' will no longer be used, as individuals previously diagnosed with Aspergers's Syndrome are now thought to be the same as those identified as high functioning autism.  These discrepancies in diagnosis can prove both frustrating and confusing for both families who have a child they suspect is autistic and individuals who have received a diagnosis in the past that no longer is used. She also stated that many parents of children with autism notice that something is wrong at around when their child is aged around 1-2, yet children often do not receive a diagnosis until around age 4 years.  She pointed out that given that there is much evidence that the earlier children receive treatments for autism the better the outcomes,  there is a need to try to identify signs of autism at an early age.

Jones then outlined her research, which was following infant siblings of children diagnosed with autism.  These children have a 20% chance of developing autism themselves, so Jones' team at Birkbeck observe all these children at key milestones (5 months, 10 months, 14 months 2 years and 3 years) in order to try to identify emerging symptoms of autism at an earlier stage.  Observations include use of EEG, optical imaging, eye tracking techniques and use of interactive stimuli that respond to the infant's eye movements.

Jones highlighted treatment options currently available for children with autism, including parenting programmes and training programmes for children (for example, one computer based training programme is aimed at increasing eye gaze and visual attention using eye tracking technology).

During the question and answer session that followed many individuals cited personal experiences of living with autism or a loved one living with autism.  Difficulties with diagnoses were discussed, but also success stories, for example, starting university.  Jones' highlighted the value of looking at the positive features of autism and discussed that perhaps autism could be seen as a different personality, rather than just in negative terms.  Suggestions were made from the audience on helpful strategies, such as educating the wider world about autism, and using sport to support some of the negative associations with autism, such as depression and anxiety.

This talk clearly had personal resonance with many people in the audience, and Jones made herself available for continued discussion in the hub afterwards, which is to be commended.

News from the Cheltenham Science Festival - Day 3 - Infinity

'Infinity' was presented by Jim Al Khalili (Professor of Physics and Public Engagement, University of Surrey and BBC broadcaster) and Richard Pettigrew (Reader of Philosophy, University of Bristol).

I didn't really know what to expect with this talk.  Given that physics and mathematics are not subjects I discuss daily, exploring infinity was always going to be a challenge for me.  Al Khalili and Pettigrew, however, managed to present this very inaccessible topic in a way that enabled me to come away feeling I had certainly learned something.

Jim Al Khalili started by giving an example of the paradoxical nature of infinity; try to divide 1 by 0 and your calculator might state 'not a number'.  But this is not strictly true, because infinity is indeed a quantity.

He then gave a historical summary of how philosophers, physicists and mathematicians have try to understand the paradox of infinity, starting with Aristotle,  who postulated that 'nature abhors a vacuum' suggesting that there was no such thing as empty space, but space was filled.  Al Khalili then described two paradoxes that have tried to explain infinity, first,  Zeno's paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise.  Achilles and the Tortoise were running a race (much like the hare and the tortoise), only Achilles gave the tortoise a headstart.  Zeno suggested that even though Achilles was faster than the tortoise he could never win the race because there were an infinite number of times when as Achilles moved to the point where the tortoise was, the tortoise would then be in a position further ahead.  We now know that you can have an infinite number of stages within a series with the final answer still being finite (so Achilles can overtake the tortoise!).

Another paradox Al Khalili discussed was Olber's paradox (1758-1840).  This was based on the question 'if the universe is infinite, why does it get dark at night?'  If the universe were infinite, then every line of sight should ultimately result in reaching a star, so therefore, the sky should be complete light from all the stars.  Various theories have been put forward to address this paradox, including postulations the universe is not infinite (Keppler) or that the light from distant stars fades (Halley).  These arguments have been refuted, but the problem of the dark night was finally resolved by Edgar Allan Poe, who stated that the sky was dark despite the fact that the universe might be infinite, because the universe had a beginning, so what we see is limited by the beginning of time.  So if you go outside at night and see it is dark, that is proof that the universe had a beginning. That is a pretty incredible concept. As for the end of the universe, the truth is, we still do not know if the universe is infinite.

Richard Pettigrew then gave a mathematician's perspective on the subject of infinity.  He started by explaining that in mathematics infinity also presents as a paradox.  He outlined different individuals who through time have tried to calculate infinity or try to grasp how infinity operates as a number.  Through his explanations of the work of mathematicians Georg Cantor and David Hilbert, Pettigrew demonstrated the bane of that playground squabble where one child tries to win a numbers argument by saying "infinity +1!" The paradox of Hilbert's hotel identified that infinity +1 = infinity, infinity + infinity also = infinity, and infinity x infinity also = infinity.  He showed, however, that infinity was not a number that you could do anything to and still get infinity, because if you add up all the measuring numbers  and try to add them to infinity there is a point where infinity cannot accommodate all the numbers.

Al Khalili and Pettigrew's talk sparked a lively question and answer session with questions ranging from the purely mathematical to profound questions about the origins and nature of the universe, and of time.  I would say that this talk has stretched the levels of my understanding the most.  I'm glad I went along though, as it's great to challenge your brain to think in a completely different way sometimes.  Another, unexpected benefit, is I will have a riposte to my son's attempts to get one up on me using "infinity + 1!".

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

News from the Cheltenham Science Festival - Day 2

Today I saw two very interesting but different talks.

First was Sean Carroll talking about the Higgs boson.  Carroll was the winner of the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science books in 2013.  Hailing from Los Angeles he commented that he was delighted to be the winner of this prize, and delighted, indeed, that there was such a prize in the UK, adding that he hoped there could be similar recognition for popular science writing in the USA.

First of all I must confess that, having given up physics at the tender age of 14 I feel completely unqualified to review this talk on its scientific content, or even give a comprehensive summary of the content of the talk, for fear of getting it all wrong.  The reason I went to this talk was just that, however, in my later years I have become more interested in physics, mainly as a result of a fantastic public engagement effort on behalf of the BBC.

Given that for a non-physicist there was a high risk that the topic of the Higgs boson was going to result in my eyes glazing over due to material going completely over my head, Carroll was remarkably engaging.  He was able to pitch the talk at a level that kept the physics graduates interested whilst teaching the neanderthals like myself the fundamentals of particle physics.  I learned about the history of particle physics, from discovery of the basic components of the atom; proton, neutron and electron, through the discovery of quarks, neutrinos and many other particle names I can't now remember.  He then described the problem of 'action at a distance', that is, how does a magnet know to move near a fridge, how does a planet know how to move in relation to the sun?  He explained that Laplace was able to explain the problem of 'action at a distance' through field theory, showing that forces operate on a slope of a field that pervades space.  So, the world is made of fields that fill a space, and particles are packets of energy that we observe in a given location when the fields vibrate, move, interact.  At this point my limits of physics knowledge were considerably exceeded, but Carroll kept me engaged with his excellent accessible presentation style.  So now we moved on to types of particles, fermions which create the physical things that we can see and touch, and bosons which create the fields.  The incentive to look for the Higgs boson was to provide evidence of the Higgs Field, which gives other particles mass, and therefore enables particles to form into the physical world we see around us.  Without the Higgs field, all the other particles would just be spinning around randomly and would not form into matter, and therefore there would be no you or me or life or anything.  He concluded that that is why the Higgs boson is such a big deal.

Carroll didn't just talk about all this.  He also gave a fascinating insight into the development of the Large Hedron Collider at Cern, Switzerland, where the Higgs boson was discovered, and he recognised in his talk all the many individuals who contributed to this discovery.

Carroll made a highly inaccessible subject accessible to me and his talk was engaging, warm and had a human dimension.  It is not surprising that he won the Winton prize.

Then I went to see Vincent Walsh (UCL) discuss "Where does Creativity come from?"  Walsh is a neuroscientist (I saw him, quite accidentally, yesterday talk about developments in brain stimulation).  Given that the very question itself has a philosophical ring to it, Walsh took care to point out on a few occasions that his role was not to discuss the philosophical.  First he gave a definition of what creativity is; 'the combination of skills and concepts in a new and useful way'.  He challenged us to consider creativity as not domain specific, not confined, for example, to the arts but also something that occurs in business, sport and science.  He gave the example of Mohammed Ali, who he felt was the most creative person he knows of.  He stated that no one has every been truly creative (at genius level) without really knowing their stuff first.  Truly creative people spend a great deal of time honing their skill before their creativity really takes off.  He also pointed out that truly creative individuals never feel that they have 'made it', and creativity is a process, perhaps without an end point.

Walsh then went on to describe the case of Eadwaeard Muybridge, a photographer who achieved his 'eureka moment' and became considerably more creative following frontal lobe brain damage.  Walsh postulated that Muybridge's creativity surge was a result of the attenuation of frontal lobe processes, which control for social behaviour and reasoning.  He showed some MRI scans of brains of jazz players in improvisation mode, which showed that during the improvisation, the frontal lobe activity was reduced, suggesting that the other areas of the brain were 'freed up' to develop new patterns of activity.

Walsh then outlined four stages of creativity; 1- preparation (this is the grind, you can't be creative about stuff you don't know about), 2 - incubation (this is the down time).  Walsh highlighted that ideas happen in down time, times when you are doing nothing.  He argued that this was a vital part of the process of creativity, reinforcing that you can't be creative when you are always busy.  He gave examples of studies the showed that the brain activity is at a fairly low level just before an insight occurs.  Incubation gives rise to 3 - illumination.  This is the 'aha' moment, but we all know that that often leads to 4 - verification, the cold light of day where you have to verify your ideas and, like the first stage,  this may take time.

Things that didn't seem to matter for creativity were IQ (although above 120 was suggested), being a prodigy (Walsh pointed out that many prodigies including Mozart, the Williams sisters also had a 'crazy father'), or personality.

Finally, Walsh alluded to the importance of sleep for creativity, suggesting that, together with doing nothing, sleep created space for your brain to be creative.

Equally as engaging as Carroll but in a more informal, conversational way, Walsh's talk left me with a deep profound need to go forth and do nothing! (Or at least just for a little while!).

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

News from Cheltenham Science Festival - Day 1

So, as promised, I am sending a first update from Day 1 at the Cheltenham Science Festival.

To start with I met up with all the other Bursary winners from the University of Surrey and UCL.  It was great to see representatives from so many disciplines, including Chemistry, Space Science, Physics and Professions Allied to Medicine.  It was also great to see an artist amongst us, which sparked an interesting dialogue about the complimentary roles of art and science, and how one can learn from the other.  Then after checking into the hotel, it was on to the talks.

So First up for me today was "Noise, a Sound Concern", chaired by Quentin Cooper and featuring Bernie Krause, a soundscape ecologist and Bernard Berry, an expert in environmental noise.  This was a stimulating talk in two parts; the first, a fascinating insight from Bernie Krause about sounds in the natural world (termed geophony and biophony retrospectively), and the effect that human noise (anthrophony) is having on other species.  First he showed how naturally occurring sounds from other species (biophony) often occupy different acoustic spaces within a biosphere in complimentary ways, so that all the species can be heard, giving a fascinating example from Borneo.  More worryingly he demonstrated several examples of animals falling silent in response to human noise, e.g. the response of a certain species of frog to low flying aircraft noise.  Bernard Berry then spoke about his work in assessing the health impacts of environmental noise and how these are assessed.  He showed evidence that there is a negative impact of environmental noise on human health, with cardiovascular disease implicated.

As a speech and language therapist with a keen interest in sounds, natural, human and musical I was fascinated by this talk.  A clear opinion from Bernie Krause which I happen to share is that many people are in denial about the negative impact environmental noise has on our health and wellbeing.  I certainly feel that we are passively accepting an increasing level of noise in our lives, to the extent that it is extremely rare to hear true silence, or even only natural sounds.  Bernard Berry reported that there are standards for manufacturers to reduce noise levels, but I wonder how aware we all are about the amount of noise we experience every day that we could actually reduce?  I want to rise to the challenge that Bernie Krause gave to all of us to get out into the field and record the natural world.

Then I went to "Brain Stimulation", sponsored by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics and featuring neuroscientist Vincent Walsh (UCL) and ethicist Ilina Singh (Kings College).  Vincent first spoke, identifying four different types of brain stimulation:  The first form of stimulation, deep brain stimulation involves electrodes being implanted deep into the brain through the scalp.  This is typically used as a form of therapy, for example, to inhibit abnormal movements caused by Parkinsons Disease.  The second form, electroconvulsive therapy is infamous with highly negative associations, for example, with narratives such as the film "One Flew over the Cuckoo's nest.  It is reported to be, however, a highly effective form of therapy for severe, drug resistant depression.  The third form of stimulation is known as transcranial magnetic stimulation.  A device is held above the head and brain stimulation occurs through a magnetic field.  There is a growing body of evidence for the effectiveness of this, far less invasive form of stimulation for depression.  Fourth and finally, direct current stimulation describes a benign stimulation using very simple machines that have developed across the market.  In this particular field, there have been claims to improve memory, help people make moral choices and even see God.  There have been no proven benefits yet to support any of these claims, but a degree of hype has been created around the concept of brain stimulation.

Ilina then talked about exploring the ethics around brain stimulation research and product development. The drivers for developing an ethics board within the Nuffield Council for novel neurotechnologies were threefold; an increasing number of people are living with serious neurological and mental health disorders, pharmacological interventions have not been as successful as originally hoped, and new technologies are being developed, often outside of the usual regulatory frameworks for clinical interventions.  One particular ethical issue central to the development of novel neurotechnologies is the special status of the brain as being the organ that represents the very essence of who we believe ourselves to be.

Ilina also spoke about the hype associated with brain stimulation research with often unsubstantiated claims.  She and Vincent also raised concerns about society's tendencies to look for technological solutions to enhancement and for management of disorders such as ADHD and dementia, when often low tech every day life and environmental changes can provide the support people need.  Ilina highlighted that talks such as this were valuable in raising the awareness of a more balanced and objective view of brain stimulation.

I believe this talk was both cognisant of the exiting developments that are taking place in brain stimulation research and development, particularly for conditions such as depression, but was also firmly rooted in common sense and awareness of the ethics around this new area.