Science, Science and Society

It's been a very sciencey few days

Yea, and verily.

Just a brief check-in, this, to assure everyone that yes, I am alive, but I’ve had my head buried in all kinds of science-based goings-on recently.

It all started on Tuesday evening, when I was lucky enough to be in the gallery listening to Martin Lord Rees speak.  For those not in the know, he’s the President of the Royal Society of London (which is 350 years old this year) and also Britain’s Astronomer Royal.

Tuesday’s talk, entitled “The World in 2050” was interesting, particularly as I went along not quite knowing what to expect.  Lord Rees spoke about the population pressures we are likely to face - some 9 billion people will add a great deal of water and agricultural stress (amongst other things) to the earth.  Of course, our inability to marshall any decent effort to mitigate climate change means that it’s likely that the world will, overall, be a warmer place by then.  Exactly what the effects of that might be are under debate, but the consensus amongst scientists is that it won’t be good.  And, of course, the rise of the East, both intellectually and economically, is likely to continue.

Not that the talk was all doom and gloom, mind.  Lord Rees also spoke of the hope that new technologies could bring us, although he was careful not to be specific about what form said technologies might take - a quick look at the covers of Popular Mechanics shows we aren’t great at predicting that! All in all it was definitely worth it, although I found myself sincerely wishing I had been able to see his talk on astronomy down south on Monday: I imagine it would have been a treat watching him speak about his passion.

Yesterday I spent being entertained by the VUW crew - something I’d highly suggest to anyone, I might add.

The morning was spent on a tour of the Science Faculty, which has had a stunning sum of money invested in it recently by the university in both equipment and facilities.  It’s always gratifying to see institutions putting their money where their mouth is, particularly when it comes to the importance of science!

My colleague and I were taken around some of the departments by the Dean himself, Prof David Bibby.  There was something for everyone, from meeting Spike the ‘cool-as’ tuatara*, to getting googly-eyed over the brilliant robotics work being done by Dale Carnegie and his students, to asking daft questions in a presentation explaining how one can encode On the Origin of Species into DNA itself!  And much else interesting besides.  I was quite touched by the fact that everyone took the time out of their pretty frenetic days to show us their work, let us touch their stuff, and answer said daft questions.

And it made me come over all misty-eyed for my science-studying days.  I miss them.  * Sniff *

Finally, the evening was spent being fed and watered again by VUW, but this time for the screening of a new documentary, entitled The Last Trillion Tonnes.  As the name suggests, it’s about climate change, although this one’s a little different to the others.


Whereas other documentaries generally have a narrator, this movie is made up entirely of interviews with scientists from all over the world, and a range of disciplines. In it, the scientists simply present the data, allowing the audience to draw their own conclusions.

I found it enormously educational, and the concepts beautifully explained - for example, I’d not really known about the thermohaline conveyor belt.  I do now.  I also had my suspicions that people who work in the Arctic are slightly mad confirmed.  I don’t want to spoil the movie for all of you - go out and watch it when it becomes available.  Really.  Although I will say that I appreciated the final message about educating our kids on the subject - the scientist in question made it clear that the goal was not to scare our kids at all, but instead to include them, and say ‘we can fix this; let’s all work on it together’.

And it featured penguins, which is always a winner.

*Fascinating fact, this: did you know that no-one knows how old tuataras get?  Seriously.  Although they reckon it could be somewhere around a hundred years.