There’s so much science out there!

11 12 2009

Last week I went a bit seminar crazy, attending five talks in two days. They were all great, and so I urge everyone to hunt out public talks where they live. Who knows what you’ll find, and at least it makes a change to a night in flicking through TV channels.

My brain is now full of facts about weird bedbug sex, the dangers of eating flying foxes, homicidal genes, magical lakes that give warriors supreme powers, and even tactics for avoiding stress at the self-service checkout in Tesco. I hope to give you a taster of some of these talks, starting with the EUSci seminars in Edinburgh…

EUSci seminars – pizza, beer and science

On Thursday night I went along to the EUSci seminar session, in its new home of the Meadow bar in Edinburgh (thanks to Ed Duca for the photos). These seminars are informal and light hearted, covering a variety of subjects, so you don’t need to know anything about the topic. Just go along and you’re sure to find out something new. They even provide free pizza and a drink from the bar, a definite plus point in my book. There will be a break over Christmas but February 2010 will bring an eager new bunch of speakers, so give it a go if you’re in Edinburgh.

Selfish Genes – just how selfish can they be?

Arvid Ågren was the first of two speakers with his talk A War Within Us, about selfish genes. He gave a great overview of the subject, with fascinating facts about genes that are so efficient at making more copies of themselves that they harm the body they’re in, and other genes in the genome.

Arvid illustrated his explanation of complicated genetic theory with his own ideas about how he might go to battle if he were an army general. Apparently, the following three options are your best bet in a genetic war zone:

1. Kill the others
2. Bring in your daddy
3. Run!

As it turns out, there are a number of genes that employ extreme strategies, including the intriguing jumping genes (transposons) that jump around the chromosome making extra copies of themselves. However, Arvid warned against attaching human emotions to the idea of a selfish gene; there is no such thing as a consciously selfish gene, just as there is no such thing as a jealous molecule or an abstract elephant. The way they behave is simply a result of their strategy for survival of the fittest.

The talk prompted great discussion around the subject of selfish genes, and what makes some more selfish than others. And, finally, I’m sure any dads out there will be fans of Arvid’s advice: listen to your father, even if it hurts your mother.

Computer Anxiety- Does it really exist?

Benjamin Cowan provided the other half of the evening’s entertainment.  He had something to say about the concept of people being scared of computers. I think it is safe to assume that readers of this blog will be pretty computer savvy. But we all know somebody who is not quite so happy, who shudders at the thought of making contact via email or using the internet to do their Christmas shopping.

It is generally accepted that a good way to reduce people’s anxiety is to make sure that the interface is user-friendly. People feel happier if they have a positive experience using a computer, whether it is their PC at work, their home computer, or even their mobile phone or a self-service checkout at the supermarket.

But Benjamin’s bugbear about this area is the very idea that computer anxiety exists. He thinks that, by labelling it as a condition or a concept, we distinguish it from any other form of anxiety. Surely, most people are anxious about stepping out of their comfort zone and trying new things, whether it is starting a new job, meeting the parents of the latest love of their life, or eating a miscellaneous fried animal whilst back packing in Asia. If these new things seem complicated and involve the use of expensive equipment, as in the world of computers, it’s perhaps not surprising that people are anxious.

More seminars to come…

Come back for part 2 (and maybe even part 3, if you’re really lucky!) to hear about bedbug sex, flying foxes, and discovering medicines on remote pacific islands.




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