Five more good books

December 31, 2008

Science gone right, science gone wrong, science gone social, science gone political—it’s all here in five off-beat book recommendations to kick off 2009.  Ranging from Darwin’s Origin of Species to Sir Terry Pratchett’s Nation, the one thing I think I can guarantee is that you will struggle to find an odder bunch of literary bed-fellows!  Hope you enjoy them, and have a happy new year!

A new year, a new leaf—time for five more eclectic (some might say eccentric) book recommendations to see you through the hangover and into a brighter future.

As in the previous five good books blog, I’ve eschewed the conventional to provide as unusual a potpourri of literary delights as you will find anywhere.  And as before, I’ve tried to inject a little method into the madness—spot it if you can!

I should first apologize because this was supposed to be a quick blog, rushed off before the New Years festivities began in earnest.  But it turned into a veritable “slow blog!”

So for those of you impatient to read the recommendations and move on, here they are:

  • On the Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin
  • The Two Cultures, by C. P. Snow
  • Trouble with Lichen, by John Wyndham
  • Cider with Rosie, by Laurie Lee
  • Nation, by Sir Terry Pratchett

But please do read on, and discover the why behind the what… Read the rest of this entry »

Saints or synners?

December 17, 2008

Policy, public perceptions, and the opportunities and challenges of synthetic biology

Synthetic biology—a supreme expression of scientific hubris, or the solution to all our problems?

Like everything in life, I suspect that the answer to the question is far from black and white.  Yet what is clear is that this emerging science and technology that merges evolutionary biology with systematic engineering raises many exciting new possibilities, together with a heap of complex social, ethical and even religious questions.

Striking the right balance between these opportunities and challenges will require people working together in new and innovative ways—especially those involved in researching, developing, using and overseeing synbio.  If the emerging technology is to reach its potential, some tough decisions are going to have to be made at some point on what is developed, how it is used, and how it is regulated.  And the more these decisions are based on sound science and informed thinking, the better.

This is the challenge a new initiative at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars has set its sights on.  The just-launched Project on Synthetic Biology aims to foster informed public and policy discourse concerning the advancement of the field, working in collaboration with researchers, governments, industries, non-government organizations and others.  Supported by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the project will draw on experience gained in addressing science and technology policy issues by the Project on Emerging Technologies—so you can expect to see some familiar faces here ☺

Rather than write a tedious infomercial for the new project, I would suggest instead that you check out the snazzy new website at  Having said that, there are three things worth highlighting: Read the rest of this entry »

Emerging science and technology at 700 characters per day – how was it for you?

December 13, 2008

The pains and pleasures of tweeting science and technology innovation, 140 characters at a time.

Five days, 539 words and 3,447 characters later, the Twitter experiment is over. Did I succeed in communicating on emerging science and technology in 700 characters a day?  I’m not sure.  The whole exercise was harder than I expected.  Trying to come up with something interesting and relevant five times a day was a challenge.  Thursday was a particularly tough day—and the entries show it!

But at the end of the exercise, I must admit it was fun.  And even though tweeting will never supplant full-on blogging for communicating stuff in depth, it clearly has a place.

I’m not sure I would do a five-day stint like this again, but the medium is clearly open to innovative use.  And with some thought, could be used to convey more complex information than trivial thoughts and web links.  Personally, I think my writing-style took a dive with the constraints imposed by the character-limit and serial-posts.  But I was surprised at how much could be crammed into 140 characters, with some thought.  And while the experiment had many flaws, I think there is scope to use Twitter and similar formats in ways that lead to engagement on issues with some depth. Read the rest of this entry »

Emerging science and technology at 700 characters per day

December 6, 2008

Getting serious with Twitter

I’m gutted.  I thought that blogging was where it is at—the cutting edge of the “new media” wave transforming modern communication.  But I now discover that I’m at least four years behind the times—a veritable dinosaur in the world of “Web 2.0!”

Which is why I’m pushing myself out on a limb with a bold experiment in social network communication this week!

November’s edition of Wired Magazine ran a story entitled “Twitter, Flickr, Facebook Make Blogs Look So 2004.” And just in case you didn’t get the message about blogging from the title, the opening paragraph rammed it home:

“Thinking about launching your own blog? Here’s some friendly advice: Don’t. And if you’ve already got one, pull the plug.”

The blogosphere is being deluged by a stream of “paid bilge” according to the article… Read the rest of this entry »

Animating the small stuff

December 1, 2007

Are nanotechnology Grand Challenges too grand for you?  Do Strategic Research Frameworks lead to you contemple a strategic withdrawal?  Have you prioritized just one too many research needs?  You are clearly in need of The Adventures of Nanoman—now available on YouTube. Read the rest of this entry »

“Selling out” on nanotechnology outreach

October 27, 2007

Somewhere, I must have taken a wrong turn in my life.  Three years ago, I was a serious scientist, doing research no-one understood, and writing papers no-one read. Now I find myself making videos about cream cakes.

It all started to go amiss when I got mixed up with a crowd with crazy ideas about engaging people on science.  First it was the small stuff—being interviewed by ten-year-olds about nanotechnology.  Before I knew it I was writing letters to fictional characters about nanotechnology policy (I’m still waiting for an answer from Arthur Weasley by the way…).  But this week I hit rock bottom: a video extolling the educational potential of an American artificial cream-stuffed sponge cake—the Twinkie! Read the rest of this entry »