November 2014 – Out Now

Our November 2014 issue is out now. Inside we meet the Japanese robots who are designed to live with humans – from cradle to grave – and the ordinary people competing for a one-way ticket to Mars on a long shot mission funded by reality TV. Plus: the best data visualisations of the last year, the evolution of the combat load, and why it can be fun to repeatedly fail (in games, at least).

Check out the preview video above, or you can download the whole thing in the app today.

Urban Wildlife Watching

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It’s Friday evening in North London, there’s a nip in the air and I’ve joined physicist Martin Zaltz-Austwick as he sneaks out of a birthday party to listen to bats.

The hum of Caledonian Road is off in the distance. We spot some after-work revellers out on the town, but can’t really hear them because we’re away from the street, at the mouth of the canal tunnel. The sun’s setting and darkness is creeping in. There’s the sound of a few birds, amongst the traffic, trains and planes, but our ears are focused to a pair of bat detectors.

The kit we’re using is simple, less than a tenner in larger toyshops. Serious bat enthusiasts shell out over £60, sometimes well over £100, for more specialised equipment. But ours do the job well enough. The devices transform the noises of the bats – which we think are in the trees, perched ready to come out to feed on insects on the canal – into a sounds that the human ear can detect. We had to wait a while, twisting the dials to different volumes and frequencies, just as you might an FM radio. Zaltz-Austwick got into bat watching – or batting as he refers to it – walking home through Crystal Palace park. He noticed loads of bats around the lake just after dusk. He’d see swifts overhead, and then the bats. They flap around the old, Victorian dinosaur models displayed there, floating in and out of the trees as they feast on insects on the water.

The detectors extend the reach of our meagre human perception, alerting us when the bats are close, so we know to look up, and offering us a chance to perceive even those bats that are out of sight. I’m surprised by how much it adds to the experience. Zaltz-Austwick’s wired two of these toy detectors together to make a stereo version. Total cost: £15 and a bit of soldering. “I really like that batting is quite an immersive experience, because they fly all around me” he says. “I thought it’d be nice to hear them in the same way, to get the acoustic soundscape in stereo.”

Zaltz-Austwick’s not the only person using tech to add something to the routine of everyday nature watching. Not by a long way, and nor is such activity new. Binoculars, compasses, cameras, particular types of clothing; wildlife enthusiasts have relied on kit of sorts for as long as it has been a pastime. But social media and cheaper domestic versions of more specialised tech are offering new ways to mediate and extend our exploration of nature. As well as buying equipment – hacked or otherwise – we can watch webcams, download apps or join collaborative mapping exercises. There’s a lot more to animals online than pet cats.

Finn Arne Jørgensen, an academic at Umeå University in Sweden who specialises in the history of technology and environment sees a clash between such a cyborg approach and traditions which prioritise a raw, bodily experience of the outdoors. This reflects a point made by science writer Sujata Gupta. In a recent New Yorker piece on drones in Yosemite, Gupta discusses her experience of working as a park ranger at the point iPhones arrived, and concerns that shareable mobile photography somehow spoiled the “spirit” of the parks. She ponders: “Could a park simultaneously let one connect and disconnect?” Jørgensen sees this tension strongly at work in Europe, but argues that increasingly people want more than just their own, human perceptions. Sensors and webcams etc, Jørgensen argues “offer more than you can be with just your body.”

As part of this process of being more than just our individual selves, nature watchers increasingly use social media tap into a ‘hivemind’ of other people’s expertise too. It’s not just technological kit extending our perception, but other humans too. A powerful example of this is iSpot, a citizen science project developed by the Open Air Laboratories, which connects beginner nature-watchers with experts and other enthusiasts. Share a picture of something you’ve seen, and the iSpot community will help you learn more.

Della Thomas, a biomedical scientist based in London, first came across iSpot last May whilst trying to identify a type of mouse in her mum’s back garden. “I took a couple of photos and thought I’d search images on the internet to compare. I realised that I’m terrible at pinpointing the fine details that make or break an identification because I couldn’t tell the difference between a house, wood or field mouse. I needed some extra help.” A friend suggested iSpot, and it wasn’t long before she had an ID. “I just love putting names to things” she says. She likes that there is a sense of trust and expertise built into the system, as uses can build their reputation, and identifiers can mark how confident they are in the ID, which can in turn be backed or usurped by other identifiers. “I also love the idea that there are probably hundreds of identifiers just waiting for the next batch of photos to be uploaded. By sharing my photos and asking for help, I’m feeding their passion, too.”

Jørgensen compares this sort of new nature watching experiences to the tradition of documentary film. Natural history television shows, he argues, are equally technological, and the BBC in particular really likes to show this off. “But it is clearly structured, a particular narrative mindset which is supposed to be spectacular” he adds, “and I’m interested in the slow, unedited mediation that happens on the webcams. It’s still very carefully framed, the web camera is put in a particular place with a particular purpose, but often nothing happens. They can be quite boring.”

“This boring I find very interesting”, he adds, comparing it to the Norwegian Slow TV movement. “With Attenborough shows, it’s a very packaged product, made with specific artistic, scientific and technological purposes in mind, but the things people do with sensors and cameras is much more messy. This mess is interesting.”

Could this mess be democratising the mediation of nature? Jørgensen agrees it might, but warns democracy is a messy process too, referring back to drones in Yellowstone. Thomas’s experience of iSpot offers another side to this. She’s unsure about its default setting, which publishes the exact location of each spot. Nature-watching can be a very personal thing, situated in domestic spaces, and as people share these experience online they can end up sharing more than they expected. “You can always edit afterwards” Thomas notes, “but I do think it shouldn’t default this way.”

But back to those bats by the canal. We waited a while, but heard little more than the buzz of the traffic (and Zaltz-Austwick playing with the noise the detector made if he scratched his beard next to it). We were starting to think we wouldn’t find anything. Then a boat went under the tunnel, and it maybe disturbed something because the detectors went crazy

“Wow, that’s an insect-biting call!” Zaltz-Austwick exclaimed, and started to explain how different calls apply sonar for greater accuracy as they corner in on their prey. We forgot the party we were missing, engrossed in the mediated noises of the bats – and still not spotting any with our eyes, but able to perceive a previously-hidden world around us.

Bat photo by Wil, used under a Creative Commons license

Who Owns Dinosaur 13?

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Who owns a dinosaur? It’s a tricksy question, reflecting a tangle of intellectual property, land rights, culture, economics, science and nature. It’s also the topic at the centre of new film, Dinosaur 13, which tells the story of the discovery and eventual auctioning of one of the United States’ most famous dinosaurs: Sue the T-Rex.

I might have specified Chicago’s Field Museum’s Sue the T-Rex. And maybe I shouldn’t have referred to it as the United States’ most famous dinosaur. I might equally have called it FMNH PR 2081 (the museum’s catalogue number) rather than Sue, a nickname picked up in honour of Sue Hendrickson, the palaeontologist who discovered the fossil in 1990. Or I might have dubbed it Disney and McDonald’s’ most complete T-Rex skeleton. It was, after all, these companies who were at the cornerstone of the consortium who stumped up a record breaking $8,362,500 (£4.9 million) for its purchase back in 1997. We have no way of knowing how the beast itself would have described itself.

Dinosaur 13 offers us something of this story with a very engaging bit of cinema. It starts with an old photo of Sue Hendrickson surrounded by friends in the field, smiling and hot from a day digging in Dakota. The camera pulls back and to reveal what they are all sitting next to: the long sweep of a very, very large fossilised jaw. The way the camera slowly brings you the bigger picture foreshadows a theme and great strength of the film: the sheer excitement and delight felt in scientific work.

The film then takes us through the gradual extraction of the fossil, how they soon realised how complete and large it was and quite what a find they had on their hands. We also learn a bit more about the paleontological team. Not Sue, who in many ways is a minor character, but Peter Larson and his brother Neal. They’d been fascinated by fossils since childhood, we’re told, starting up a museum in their garden shed before returning from college to set up a grown up version in the shape of the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research Inc, a private organisation specialising in the excavation, preparation and sale of fossils, with a non-profit museum attached.

We see the the Larsons pay $5000 to the owner of the land where Sue was found, Maurice Williams, and take the bones back to the Black Hills Institute where they start to painstakingly prepare it for display. They do this in a relatively open way, with the local people coming into watch. There’s a fair bit of excitement in the town. Such a massive dinosaur would attract tourists and be a boom for the economy. It’s also just plain interesting, and the people feel a sense of local pride. The area is sometimes known as T-Rex country, and this is their special T-Rex.

Then the FBI turn up. The land Sue was found on was Native American, and this leads to a complex legal battle. The agents don’t really know what they are doing as their seize the fossil, so Peter Larson – heartbroken – has to help. Local schoolchildren run after the vans shouting to bring Sue back. The press roll up, including journalist Kristin Donnan, who Peter Larson later marries (the couple wrote the book Rex Appeal, upon which Dinosaur 13 is based).

Strongly implied in the narrative that unfolds is a sense that academic palaeontologists snobbishly don’t trust the Larsons and feel Sue should be in a “proper” museum. It’s also suggested that Maurice Williams was an unscrupulous person to be doing business with. But Williams was eventually awarded ownership of the fossil, and Sue goes to auction. Peter Larson, meanwhile, is sentenced to two years in prison for problems with his paperwork.

He is eventually released, but Sue is still trapped in auction rooms in New York. There is some excitement when a local businessman offers to pay up to a million dollars to buy Sue back for the town, but then auction day comes and we speedy realise that she’s going to be sold for much, much more. Chicago nabs it with a bid heavily supported by McDonalds and Disney. When Sue was unveiled for public display in 2000, Peter Larson didn’t even get an invite.

It’s an exciting and often very moving story. Played as a tale of the underdog, it’s an appealing narrative, but there are large bits of this particular excavation of a dinosaur left unearthed.

Palaeontology writer Brian Switek, in his review of the film, takes issue with Larson’s portrayal of incompetent academics as not an image that fits his own experience of working in the field, and a snub to the labour of scores of volunteers who support such work. Switek further suggests that “conspicuously absent” from Dinosaur 13 and the debate around its release is the story that Larson has recently been involved in bringing a pair of controversial dinosaur skeletons (the “Duelling Dinosaurs”) to a $9 million public auction.

I was also left uneasy about the image of Maurice Williams as a simple villain. Maybe he was, but the character is left so one dimensional it is hard to tell. According to Native American news site Indian Country Daily, Williams’ widow is sure the $5,000 made to him was a payment for having disturbed the land, not for the dinosaur. The Indian Country Daily report also notes that the tribe is working towards its own museum. Much of the moral drive of Dinosaur 13 is rooted in the image of funded academics in Chicago taking the dinosaur from a small town that could have built so much around it, but other people could have built around it too.

There’s a point in the film where we learn that because Sue is fossilised, she is treated legally as real estate, compared to archaeological finds of human artefacts. There’s a sort of narrative expectation that you are meant to flinch at this point; the very idea of a dinosaur being counted as land. But there is a way in which the T-Rex is land, and considering the history of land rights in the US, this an important part of the story. At the very least Dinosaur 13 should have taken time to explore the ethics here, and possibly offer their audiences something about the history of Native American relationships with dinosaurs, including contemporary paleontological work.

I also wanted to hear more about Sue after she was sold; the way she became a piece of consumer culture. Part of what makes Sue so iconic isn’t just her size, or age, or the scientific work that unearthed and prepared her for display, but the branding, and the knowledge of quite how much was paid for her. Today, you can follow her on Twitter and buy Sue t-shirts and lip balm in the shop. That is as much part of Sue the T-Rex as anything else, just as the dinosaur themed McDonald’s in the basement of the Field Museum plays its part, and Dinosaur 13 undoubtedly will now too. It’s all human activity inscribing itself on an ancient object that is so fascinating to us because of how beyond-human it is.

Dr Alice Bell writes for Popular Science UK every month on science in the media. To read her latest column, on the ‘discovery’ of John Franklin’s arctic expedition, download the app – new subscribers get the latest issue, plus the next, free.

Photo: Peter Larson with part of the dinosaur, courtesy Dogwoof Films.

Delivery Drones, Designer Babies and our Sci-Fi Special

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Our August issue is available to download now. Our cover story looks at drones, and how they’ll change our lives over the coming few years – both for the better, and for worse. Also inside you’ll find:

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Full genetic sequencing of babies – we visit a hospital where this incredible technique is saving lives, but also meet the doctors who want to use it to created ‘designer’ babies to order.

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A DIY super-submersible – when director James Cameron decided to make a deep submarine dive, he turned to an amateur submersible builder to create his custom craft. We met him, and learned the secrets of how it was built – using tools including a kitchen food processor.

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Science Fiction Special – we invited ten of the brightest minds in science fiction to imagine the future on earth and beyond, exploring the future of warfare, aging, transport, entertainment, and more.

Plus lots more, including:

  • The incredible journey of the Rosetta space probe, explored in an exclusive interactive graphic
  • A mobile phone powered by the sun
  • A barbeque that can charge your gadgets
  • Waterproof your iPhone for under a tenner
  • Hammerhead sharks’ evolutionary trap
  • An electric hat to help you learn
  • The mysterious world of lightning
  • Preparing for a future without antibiotics
  • Build a DIY calculator with our full instructions
  • Your science questions answered – including “can humans smell fear?”

It’s all available to download in the app today.

Self-Driving Cars are Coming – Read about them free!

1000selfdriveToday the UK Government announced that trials of self-driving cars on UK roads could begin as soon as next year. Which is good news – if a little late. Self-driving cars have already taken to the roads in the US, Japan and elsewhere, and we took a ride in some of them last October for our cover story “Traffic Pattern”.

But nonetheless, it’s a step in the right direction – and to celebrate, we’re giving away a free copy of that issue so you can read all about self-driving technology. Simply download the app today, and you’ll be offered the free issue when it starts for the first time.

 

Unlocking Lovelock at the Science Museum, London

A new exhibition on James Lovelock has just opened at the Science Museum, offering a glance into the museum’s ongoing analysis of his archive.

Lovelock, born in 1919, is an interesting if controversial character who enrages and delights both the scientific establishment and the environmental movement. He is open in his criticism of both groups too. In an interview he gave the Guardian as part of the exhibition launch he argued environmentalism has become a religion and “religions don’t worry too much about facts.” As part of the PR for the exhibition he also spoke to Nature, offering several dismissals of the scientific establishment and a slightly bitchy line regarding “the tendency of some geologists to keep their heads in the sediments.”

Lovelock is best known for the Gaia hypothesis, a vision of the Earth as a holistic self-regulating system co-developed by the microbiologist Lynn Margulis in the 1970s. But he has worked in many fields, refusing to be bound by disciplinary boundaries and contributing to medicine, environmental science, atmospheric chemistry and the exploration of space. He is also an inventor and instrument maker as well as prolific writer.

Lovelock is interesting not just in terms of his scientific outputs, but how he goes about doing science. Eschewing the institutionalisation and large-scale team work of modern so-called ‘Big’ science, he is resolutely independent. He also deviates from standard forms of scientific dissemination, often communicating directly to the public via science books. His refusal to play by the rules of modern science shows up the existence of such rules which are, often, a bit ridiculous. This has won him many fans, but it has also made him the odd enemy too.

Reading the various accolades of Lovelock surrounding the opening of this exhibition, he’s often depicted as a wise old man, a ‘character’ and true independent thinker who took on the establishment. But there is also something slightly anti-social about him too. The exhibition explains that one of the reasons Lovelock made his own instruments was so he had greater confidence in their accuracy. This is perhaps fair enough. But seems to reflect a lack of trust in other people. He is also famously pessimistic of our ability to politically deal with climate change. Lovelock told Nature that “as far as I’m concerned, I don’t have any peer review.” I’m not entirely sure what he means by this, but it seems to imply he doesn’t really have “peers” that might try to fairly review him. Perhaps this is true. As Philip Moriarty recently argued, the specialised nature of modern science mean that often researchers are asked to review work which they don’t really have much detailed knowledge of. Still, there is something arrogant about the way he puts it.

In telling this story of Lovelock, the Science Museum offers us some clever curating. You can enter the exhibition from one of two sides; either tucked behind the games of the Energy Futures gallery, or via the front stairwell and glass lifts. This might prove a challenge for a biographical narrative, but the museum tops and tails the display with items of Lovelock’s youth, with well placed double-faced signage throughout meaning that – although occasionally it feels like cleverly constructed pop-up book – there is a sense of coherent story through his training, work on Gaia and various adventures elsewhere.

Museums can be bad spaces for the exploration of science. Science is about ideas, but how do you put a theory in a glass case? Science is also constructed from gradual interactions between scientists and the natural world. It is slow, full of calculations and correspondence. It’s not always exactly eye-catching. And science changes and is continually provisional. It can feel too slippery for something as physically solid as an exhibition. But the Lovelock display captures something of the dynamic texture of doing science. It even manages to display peer review (no mean feat, especially considering Lovelock seems to think he’s beyond such things). Or at least it shows Nature’s rejection letter to Lynn Margulis, complete with a very mid-1980s typeset, and notes from a couple of respected earth scientists who were sent chapters of Lovelock’s second Gaia book in the late 1980s.

There are references to the role of science in diplomacy and scientific advice in politics, with an invitation and seating plan for a dinner held at 10 Downing Street in 1989 in honour of the President and First Lady of Bangladesh. We are told that, after talking with him at dinner, Thatcher invited Lovelock to participate in a seminar on climate change. We are also shown letters dated from 1997 and 2000 from the former Prime Minister, respectively offering congratulations on an award and thanking him for a copy of his new book. It’s not clear if Thatcher and Lovelock bonded scientifically or politically – or a mix of the two – but there seems to be some sense of mutual respect between them anyway.

The Science Museum exhibition also captures some of the cultural offshoots of Lovelock’s work, with the score of an oratorio based on extracts of his books. There was no Captain Planet though, which disappointed me probably more than I should admit to, and perhaps reflects the problem of an exhibition led by a scientist’s own collection and view of their work, rather than exploring the more accidental ways it might have been taken by society at large. There’s also no mention of Lovelock’s relationship with Shell, a company he has a long history of working with and supporting. As he wrote in Homage to Gaia: “My experiences with Shell left me firmly with the impression that they are neither stupid nor villains. On the contrary I know of no other human agency that plans as far ahead or considers the environment more closely.” Perhaps the curators thought it wasn’t relevant. But seeing as Shell is a “Premium Sponsor” of the exhibition it is hard not to wonder.

As enjoyable as much of the exhibition is, however, I worry that in studying a single man, and especially this single man, the museum is in danger of celebrating the cult of the individual somewhat. That Lovelock pushes back against the tendency towards big, networked science is part of what makes him interesting, but it is also unusual. Allied to this I’d have liked to see a lot more critique of Lovelock. In places the exhibition – and certainly the PR for it – borders on hagiography. There is a strong sense of individualism – not just independent thought – which seems to drive Lovelock. This is not necessarily a bad thing, or good one, but could at least be contextualised, in terms of cultural and scientific history of the time.

There is something hollow and depressing in this vision of science as a lone enterprise, just as there is something slightly hollow and depressing about Lovelock’s approach to environmentalism. I don’t think I like it, and I worry that the Science Museum seems so keen to blithely celebrate it.

Dr Alice Bell writes for Popular Science UK every month on science in the media. To read her latest column, download the app – new subscribers get the latest issue, plus the next, free.

July 2014 – Out Now

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Our July issue is out now, and this month – in celebration of the summer blockbuster – we focus on the world of film. To start with, we look at the science behind cinema’s favourite sci-fi bad guys – aliens, zombies, mutants and the like – and whether or not humankind is, in reality, ever likely to encounter them. Plus, what could we do if they did show up angry? Meanwhile, Alice Bell looks at radical anti-science protesters: they appear quite regularly in the cinema, but seem less common in real life – why is that?

Speaking of anti-science protests, we also focus on Genetically Modified foods. With a fresh uproar in motion against GM apples, we examine the accusations most often levelled against GM foods, and assessed each to see if they pose any real danger. Plus:

  • Meet the woman who wants to sell you a private brain-wave reader
  • Why bailiffs could be tracking where you drive – even if you don’t owe a penny
  • 50 years’ worth of NASA history in one interactive graphic
  • A bluetooth-enabled football, and our other gadget picks of the month
  • How solar flares can mess with today’s technology
  • An implant that could help paralysed people stand
  • How to buy a car and get free fuel for life
  • Smarter suspension for bikes
  • A DIY spacesuit for suborbital use
  • A tank driven by a goldfish. Yes, really.

It’s all available now in the app – where you’ll also find a free preview, including our complete article on GM foods.

June Issue Out Now

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Our June issue is out now, and it’s a special focusing on water. Inside we examine:

  • Newer, smarter techniques for desalinisation that use less power
  • How a solar-powered machine could bring drinkable water to communities around the world
  • How we could unlock the potential of the water on Mars
  • Plans for a 60m tall floating ocean laboratory
  • An underwater jetpack built by the military (we try it out)
  • Biodegradable electronics that disappear in water

Plus the latest space news, the science of coffee, the pint-sized competitor to games consoles, advanced materials for surfing, our pick of the best new technology you can buy, and much more.

It’s all in the app, here.

 

The Longitude Prize: Science’s Hunger Games

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What sort of dystopian austerity logic asks the public to vote on whether they want to fund research on water or food security?

The new Longitude Prize, that’s what, brought to you by NESTA, the BBC and the UK’s Technology Strategy Board. Based on the Longitude Prize of 1714, this 21st century version was announced by David Cameron last summer as part of Britain’s leadership of the G8. It’s in the news again because the British public are being asked via a special 50th anniversary edition of Horizon, which of a set of so-called ‘grand challenges’ they think the prize should address.

Whereas the original Longitude Prize wanted to determine a ship’s longitude at sea, we have a new set of challenges facing us today. As Cameron put it last year: “There are so many problems in our world that need that amazing solution, whether it is a cure for dementia, solving the problem of diabetes, having a flight from Britain to New York that’s carbon free.”

And whereas the original prize had a Board of Longitude to administer the scheme, the 2014 event wants to add a bit of 21st century openness to the equation. A new board was established – chaired by Astronomer Royal Martin Rees – and they’ve produced a new shortlist of challenges to be put to the public. Despite the board’s wide and world renowned set of expertise, they don’t seem to have travelled much beyond the Prime Minister’s initial suggestions. Diabetes has gone (not sure if the sugar lobby will be delighted or annoyed at that) but dementia and environmentally friendly flight are there, along with both food and water security, the risk of antibiotics resistance and the question of how can we might restore movement to someone with paralysis.

Again, to quote Mr Cameron last year: “I’m thinking of something – Britain’s Got Talent, you know, you switch on the TV and you watch the dog jumping over the pole, or whatever it is. Let’s actually get the nation engaged on what the biggest problems are in science and in our lives that we need to crack, with a multi-million pound prize to then help us do that.” And in many ways this is a laudable aim. People have been attempting to engage the public with the slippery and often esoteric issue of research funding for years. But is a TV-show vote really the way to do it?

A look inside the latest issue of Popular Science UK, available exclusively as an interactive iPad magazine. Download the app to read this issue, and the next, free when you subscribe.

Science writer Philip Ball for one has laughed at the idea that we should treat science policy with the same mindset as ‘the dog jumping over the pole’. In response, Dame Profressor Athene Donald, who is on the prize committee, argued that the social challenges science sets its mind to should be chosen by more voices than just science alone. She’s right, and a lot more has gone into this than just the TV vote; there’s a much more developed Sciencewise project informing the work too.

Still, the public role has been quite controlled throughout – it’s the pre-scripted non-involvement of a pantomime engagement where you might get to shout “HE’S BEHIND YOU” but the romance, jokes and plot twists were all rehearsed weeks back. The schools pack makes the promise to be “no longer spectators” on building the future, but is acting as a “champion” for one of such a limited set of pre-decided topics really offering much involvement? Because they are really limited too.

In many ways, this isn’t a sciencey Britain’s Got Talent, it’s a sciencey Hunger Games. Shall we research water security or food security? YOU DECIDE. What sort of choice is that exactly? Of all the many choices which go into reviewing research ideas – good, useful processes of rejection and encouragement which decide where to put our resources – something as monumentally crass as ‘which challenge we care about most of all’ seems like a very poor point for public engagement.

Moreover, look further afield and this prize comes in a science and technology policy context where our choices over what to research are becoming ever-more curtailed and controlled. Questions are being asked in parliament over the Natural Environment Research Council’s oil and gas innovation strategy. There are mounting concerns about the possible privatisation of the Food and Environment Research Agency; government labs which study bees, GMO safety, tree health and more. On an international level, there’s the 200+ people arrested in Brussels for protesting about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – this is just a handful of examples, but they are all science policy stories which could do with much greater public debate and discussion. And yet instead Horizon are asking us to engage in a TV vote over abstracted grand challenges, as if none of this messy, unruly and sometimes questionable politics of science and technology exists.

And let’s not forget that innovation prizes are so popular with policy-makers and industry because they put the burden of risk on the researcher, not the funder. The idea of a lone genius solving the world’s food crisis from his shed in Oldham is a lovely idea, but it is largely wishful thinking. As Jack Stilgoe argued in terms of the idea of Big Society Science, science is an expensive, equipment-heavy team sport, it comes from large scale work which, above all, requires large scale investment. Really clever science takes time, money and infrastructure – time, money and infrastructure the UK government is wilfully cutting – and the TV prize show format all too readily glosses over this.

There’s also the not insignificant point that several of these challenges could be dealt with via changes to social systems, not a new technical innovation. It’s a cliche to point out that engineering innovation is no panacea for the lack of social infrastructure, but there is a reason why this point is so often repeated. When it comes to dementia, in particular, maybe we could look to heath and social welfare systems before we started flashing a trophy around to find a possible ‘cure’. As bioethicist Richard Ashcroft wrote last year during Cameron’s ‘dementia summit’, we already effective treatment for managing the disease, the problem is delivery and cost. Applying the rhetoric of a war on cancer for dementia sounds strong but “it won’t help the fragmented and incoherent health services deal with dementia better. Indeed, it may fragment efforts further.”

The Longitude Prize 2014 talks a language of inclusion and cash to meet global challenges but is really very limited in its scope, and all around it science and innovation is being cut and enclosed even further. The big flashy show of the event could be an invite for the public to be interested in how we use science and engineering to build our futures. It could, in turn, also be a chance for those who currently hold such purse strings to realise that public engagement really isn’t that scary and try something more adventurous instead. I hope both possibilities turn out to be true. But it looks a lot like bread and circus to distract us from cuts. I find this patronising, and possibly a bit suspect.

If you look at your voter’s choices in the Longitude Prize and feel a bit limited, ignore that particular ballot and, as we approach a general election, ask the political parties vying for your support to commit to increasing public funding of science, and increasing transparency and public engagement with science policy too. Because the rhetorics surrounding this prize are right about one thing, we should have a much richer public debate about how we use science and engineering to build our future.

Dr Alice Bell writes for Popular Science UK every month on science in the media. To read more, download the app – new subscribers get the latest issue, plus the next, free.

Photo: John Harrison’s H4, of the original Longitude Prize, at the 2014 launch. 

Looking behind the Big Bang Fair

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The Big Bang Fair is one of the largest science and engineering education projects in the UK. An annual exhibition which runs for several days, it alternates between the ExCeL Centre in London and the NEC in Birmingham, attracting tens of thousands of 7-19 year olds from across the country. Led by various institutions in science and engineering including the British Science Association and the Royal Academy of Engineering, it is supported by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and a host of industrial and charitable organisations.

Since the first Big Bang Fair back in 2009, though, its choice of sponsors have inspired controversy. Mainly, it’s the presence of arms manufactures like BAE Systems. It has become an increasingly tired joke that something called the Big Bang Fair might be associated with companies who make very big bangs indeed.

Big bangs sound fun. Indeed, a lot of them are fun. Greg Foot’s Kamboom show for this year’s Big Bang sounded like a blast, in more ways than one. But it’s worth remembering that all our great scientific expertise on making bangs comes via centuries of devoting scientific energies to ever more inventive ways of killing people.

BAE doesn’t just get an association and space for their logos for their sponsorship money, they have exhibition space too. In many ways, it is appropriate that they do. Big Bang is largely about showcasing careers in science and engineering, and BAE are a major employer. Even if they weren’t sponsors, you might expect them to be mentioned. Military research and development is a truth in science and engineering, although it is not always talked about outside. Raise the issue with researchers and they often shrug it off “that’s just how it is, how it’s always been” they might even laugh at those who dislike as if they are naive to the truth (as opposed to knowing the truth very well, just not liking it).
But even if BAE should be mentioned in the exhibition floor, it doesn’t have to be with the sort of public relations space it currently gets. This goes for other groups too, from all sorts of areas of science and technology, whatever you think of them: Coca-Cola, Water Aid, the University of Manchester, the NHS, the BBC or Lockheed Martin. There is a difference between talking about the various companies and other institutions which make up UK science and engineering and being led by their spin.

Last year the BAE stall showcased “bedflex“, tech designed to help recovering amputees. This was, I felt, a rather partial view of BAE’s diverse portfolio of products. If anything, it looked crass. This year’s stall was a little more open about what sort of business they were in, but the display still lead with notes on how much charity work they did and the help they’d provided the British bobsleigh team. This doesn’t look like education, nor does it look like decent careers advice, it looks like PR. I’m not sure why groups like the Royal Academy of Engineering and BIS are lending the weight of their reputations and resources behind that sort of activity, arms manufacturer or not.

Another example was the stall outlining Coca-cola’s work to improve the sustainability of their plastic bottles – part of a suite of exhibits on food technology that also included Nestle and Cadbury’s. It was inspiring and interesting, presented by people who sounded like they genuinely loved their work. A crowd of young people collected around them, wide eyed, and I could see why. But it was a limited view, ignoring many other areas of scientific and political analysis which could be brought to bear on the issue. Teachers and parents can encourage students to ask critical questions – the kids are quite capable of cheekily asking them anyway – but the atomised nature of the Fair’s set up doesn’t exactly encourage it.

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Educational spaces are, at their best, teacher-led; offering students opportunities to combine and mix different areas of knowledge and come to their own conclusions. By contrast, the brand-led approach of the Big Bang Fair is by its nature limited. The trade fair set up also means that stalls had to compete for attention in the loud and busy space, privileging those with larger PR budgets. Many lured people in with freebies. I saw a small group of children engrossed by the Renewables UK stall – simple electrical activities in trays – but it was hard to keep their attention once someone dressed in the sparkly blue costume of a nuclear enrichment company’s mascot turned up, offering photo opportunities.

The Big Bang Fair is not the only area of science and engineering where having a certain amount of money gets you access to a larger pool of public resources. Science Museum displays require a major sponsor, so it’s maybe no surprise that the sponsors tend to match the subjects; the Virgin Media space, for example, the Materials Gallery brought to you in association with the UK Steel Industry, or Shell-branded climate change events. But who’ll sponsor the gallery of industrial accidents? Or slavery? Or Betamax, gas fridges and all the other discarded bits of technology which still tell a story about the modernity we’ve created?

This model is increasingly applied to formal education too, with the network of University Technical Colleges. These are led by a sponsor university and co-sponsored by large companies. The Heathrow Aviation UTC is arguably the most overtly political of these, embedding social and economy ties to flight tightly in a local area, driving right across years of environmental activism in the process. Indeed, I’m surprised not have seen more protest about it – and the EDF sponsored nuclear skills college – from the green movement, or even other competing industrial interests.

This approach is increasingly true in terms of research funding too. Researchers are more likely to gain access to public money if they can bring resources – or at least letters of support – from industry. In many ways it is a good idea, it can top up the increasingly impoverished pot of public funding, it also often brings industrial expertise and ideas along with money, and it helps encourage academics to consider how they might help build research that can be used by others. But it also focuses our public science energies to a reasonably narrow set of interests, meeting the needs of groups that already have money and power rather than anything more disruptive.

Science and engineering that can be of use to established companies is often a good thing, but it is important we have funding to do other work too – if not, we further lock ourselves into the way we are currently running the world. And, as great as many aspects of modern society are, isn’t the point of science and engineering is to offer us space for improvement?

Alice Bell writes every month in Popular Science UK. Read her latest column, about James Lovelock at the Science Museum, in the app. This article was published in the April 2014 edition.

Photo of the Big Bang Fair 2013 by Ian Hughes, used under a Creative Commons Attribution license (source here).