Monthly Archives: September 2013

Australian Natalie

ABC Media WatchA small blog about my blog on alien life in space dust which was spoken about on an Australian ABC programme called Media Watch. It’s really funny because they have an Australian woman quoting my website and she puts on a faux english accent. Made me chuckle somewhat. Click the link below to see the 3.5 minute video.

ABC Media Watch piece with Australian Dr Starkey.

The tagline for the show is ‘everyone loves it until they’re on it’ but luckily I’m not on it for my science but rather because I comment on someone else’s. Phew!

Bad science…luckily not my own…’alien life forms in space dust’….

Some so-called ‘science’ has appeared in the media today that’s made scientists like myself very angry. I was called up earlier today by Sky News to appear on their evening show commenting on this particular story (I’ll get in to what the story is in a minute) of which I’d previously heard nothing about. After a quick google I found the science to which Sky were referring, on the Daily Mail website (say no more?!). I didn’t need to give it much of a read before I called them back almost instantly to refuse to comment on the work because I didn’t want to give this ‘science’ the airtime. I also asked Sky not to cover the story because, basically, it is a total load of codswallop. I now know I’m not the only scientist who was called by a media agency today to comment on this story. However, this doesn’t mean that journalists haven’t covered the story in their droves! I’d prefer to ignore this story but I feel like I need to vent my fury and re-educate all those journalists who mistakenly chose to cover it without asking for any independent scientific opinion on the matter (I’m looking at you Daily Mail and Independent…oh and I can now add The Telegraph to that list although they did make some attempt to add some other science in at the end of the story, but that hasn’t appeased me!).

So the story is published in The Journal of Cosmology and this is instantly where I start to get concerned. This journal has a history of publishing dubious science and all I can say is it’s not somewhere I would submit any of my work! The ‘new scientific research’ presented in the paper tells us that alien life forms have been discovered in stratospheric dust returned by space balloons. One of the scientists on the work, Prof Wickramasinghe, has cropped up before telling us that he found diatoms in a meteorite. The origin of this particular meteorite itself was slightly dubious and it may have lingered for some time in a river after it came to Earth meaning that if life was found in this meteorite then it might very much have a terrestrial origin. However, there’s no need to discuss the origin of any diatoms because they simply didn’t exist in the meteorite anyway, the findings presented in the paper were a load of rubbish. Essentially no one in the scientific community believes any of Wickramasinghe’s claims and no one will believe any of the new claims. When we look at the ‘evidence’ in the new paper we are even less convinced. Images show what I would say is probably a piece of terrestrial volcanic dust (I presume, but with no scale bar it is impossible to say, in fact there are no scale bars on any of the images). However, the researchers instead suggest the dust is a collapsed alien organism with a head, nose and sphincter ‘clearly’ on show (see the Daily Mail website for pics and then try to match the caption with the image…it’s quite fun). This is all obviously ridiculous and to make matters worse there are no analyses presented to tell us the composition of this material, presumably because if you were to analyse it you would find it was made of rock, not ‘life form’. Anyway, I have a confession, I’ve been a bad journalist here and I’ve not read the paper associated with this piece I’m writing. I believe I’m exempt in this situation though because the paper can’t be considered a ‘real’ scientific paper so there was no need to read it.

Anyway, I’m bored of writing about this bad science now. As readers of my website will know, I study space dust collected in the stratosphere by NASA and I’d prefer to trust NASA to do this job to ensure that the dust remains pristine with no contamination. I will continue to analyse space dust to understand the composition of, and the conditions in, the early Solar System (of which organic material, not diatoms and sphincters, was clearly a component). ‘Life forms’ have not been found in space dust, which is not to say there’s not life somewhere out there in the Solar System, or that it didn’t exist in the past, but, if life were to be found then we’d need a little more proof than just some microscope pictures. And it’d also help if the microscope pictures actually looked like what they were being suggested to be. Oh, and of course if life forms were found in meteorites then the work would be published in a well-respected peer-reviewed journal!

Getting ready for Rosetta

Rosetta mission logoFinally we have some serious articles getting started in the press about the Rosetta mission to the unpronounceable Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The first article focussing on the next phase of the Rosetta mission is by Jonathan Amos for the BBC and is available here, but I was also interviewed a few weeks ago for a Telegraph article which should appear soon. As the BBC article points out, it’s a good time for comets and we’re going to be hearing a lot about them what with Comet ISON happening soon too. I’ll blog about that in due course but from what I hear from my astronomy buddies, things are looking quite good for ISON at the moment.

Rosetta is a mission that has been travelling through space for nearly 10 years and the spacecraft even entered into hiberation in 2011 to save its precious battery power. It’s passed two asteroids during its journey – 2867 Steins (in 2008) and 21 Lutetia (in 2010) – and is set to land on the comet in November 2014. It’s first big step is waking up from its 2 year slumber and this is set to happen on January 20th 2014. It will then approach the comet in August 2014 before the Philae lander makes its landing attempt. This is the first time in history that any space agency has tried to land on a comet so it’s a really exciting test of the technologies required to do this. Once (hopefully) it’s safely harpooned on the comet surface Rosetta will carry out scientific experiments to find out what the comet is made of. As we all know (or those of you who read my blog anyway), comets contain the original building blocks of the Solar System, having preserved the earliest materials from the beginning of the Solar System in the deep freeze far from the Sun. We don’t often get to sample them so not only will Rosetta show us how to capture a comet, but it will also be able to reveal 4.6 billion year old Solar System secrets.

Here’s a video made by ESA showing an orbit around the comet. There’s more video’s and content about Rosetta available here.

Oh, and even more excitingly, the Open University have an instrument, called Ptolemy, on the Philae Lander. We’re hoping to measure the isotopic composition of the water and organic material in the comet. However, building space instruments to survive and work in these extreme conditions is no mean feat so fingers crossed Ptolemy performs and we can get some real science back. I will be using the new data to compare to the analyses of comet dust that I make on Earth as Rosetta will provide us with the ‘ground truth’ to understand what a real comet looks like in space. I can’t wait!!

I recorded an interview for the Guardian Science Weekly podcast with the Ptolemy engineers at the The Open University. That should be available soon so I’ll post it on here when it’s ready.

Blobfish – Ugly animals Guardian article

Here’s a link to my Guardian environment article on the vote for the ugliest animal. I know it’s not space science news but it’s a little bit of fun.

I wrote this article following on from a press conference at The British Science Festival in Newcastle where the Ugly Animal Preservation Society announced the result of the global online vote. Turns out that the blobfish wins but it’s quite funny how many people are now defending this poor endangered species, it even has it’s own twitter page!

I’ll post links soon to the Guardian Science Weekly podcasts that I worked on. They should be out over the next few weeks…lots of interviews, it was fun. There’s even some space science in the some of the interviews!

British Science Festival 2013 – a small summary

Guardian Science podcast recording with Jason Phipps
Guardian Science podcast recording with Jason Phipps

Well this blog brings me nearly to then end of my week at the British Science Festival in Newcastle, and what a fantastic week it’s been. I’ve been immersed in the sights and sounds of so much varied science and had some great discussions on really quite a wide range of different science topics. I’ve been officially working for the Guardian whilst here as part of my British Science Association Media Fellowship and I think it’s rounded off a great experience that I’ve had in this role over the summer. I’d love to come back and do it all again next year…and the event will move to Birmingham so I may well go although whether it’s in the capacity as a scientist, journalist or science communicator I am not yet sure. The British Science Festival staff here have been amazing helping us to set up interviews and generally looking after us. I have so many highlights (one of them being a robot that delivered us beer) but I will just summarise here the work I did along with Jason Phipps from the Guardian putting together some podcast material for the Guardian Science Weekly.

The science we covered in the podcast interviews has been very varied to say the least and on one day I had to switch to three different subjects for different interviews within a 2 hour period. I learnt that preparation is key, as long as I’d done my planning and thinking beforehand around the general questions I wanted to ask, I found my brain switched with no trouble to each interview and the conversation, on the whole, flowed fairly well. I didn’t find it too scary and actually quite enjoyed sitting in the presenter/interviewer seat for a change.

Do cosmetics really help our skin?

I kicked off my first podcast by interviewing Prof Desmond Tobin after I saw his talk about the ‘Science of Cosmetics’. He gave a really interesting insight into how the skin reacts to different beauty creams and whether it’s worth paying £650 for a pot of anti-aging cream. I think the conclusion was that we aren’t really sure but that some ‘real’ science does indeed go into the production of many beauty products. However, it might be hard for the public to work out which products had actually proven their ingredients worked, and unless an independent lab had tested the product then we couldn’t be sure. He mentioned about the use of nanoparticles in products and this is a field that is not very well understood at present (they only recently defined the term ‘nano’ in this area to mean particles as less than 40nm because these are small enough to actually enter into the skin). It seems that so little is understood about nano-sized particles that it might be better to avoid them for now. But in a largely unregulated industry the consumer may have no idea that the product they are buying contains these ingredients as companies do not need to say on the packet!

The Sun (the celestial object, not the newspaper, they aren’t reporting from the festival this week).

I also interviewed a physicist, Dr James McLaughlin, about his research on the sun and this was following on from a presentation he gave in Newcastle Central Library. Despite being a space scientist myself I found that there was lots I didn’t know about the sun, especially that if you were an astronaut in space and a solar flare came your way that it could kill you instantly. Interesting thoughts for the 200,000 people that have put themselves forward for a potential mission to Mars. At this same library event a second presentation was given by a musician who had done some really fun work of capturing the sounds of the Solar System. I heard a pulsar and the Cassini spacecraft travelling around Saturn. This was really fascinating stuff.

Reproductive health, how long can women leave it before considering having children?

I really enjoyed speaking to Prof Mary Herbert about the aging of reproductive eggs. Her rather stark warning to women was to have children young – meaning early 20’s – as reproductive health really drops off after 35. Rather sobering but potentially not very helpful advice. The press conference highlighted the fact that many women are simply not ‘choosing’ to leave it so late to have children because it is a complicated issue and there are many other factors involved in these decisions. We discussed on the podcast what could be done about this prevalence for older mothers and she suggested that we needed a total change in social and political circles to allow career-driven women, and others, to have children younger and still maintain a solid career path. But perhaps this is a much bigger debate than I have time to give it here so we’ll move on.

Designer Vaginas: Centrefold project

And we’ve moved on to a fairly controversial event. I’m so glad I went along, on a bit of a whim, to this film and debate because I learnt an awful lot about this topic. I had no idea that labioplasty surgery was so prevalent (around 2000 operations on the NHS in the last 2 years). The event I went to was an animated film about three women who had surgery and it was followed by a debate around the subject. I plan to write a longer blog piece about this because it really deserves some space but we got to speak to the film producer, Ellie Land, and one of the doctors, Lih-Mei Liao, involved in the film about this subject for the podcast. Despite the early start we had to make because the doctor was due back in London for her clinic, we had a great discussion. Both the women were really inspiring and I’m sure we could’ve chatted about the topic all day had we the opportunity. Here’s the link to the wider Centrefold Project where the movie is available for free. It’s fantastic and really thought provoking so I suggest you take a look (but it might not be for very young children).

So many other highlights but too much to cover here. I suggest that if you’re interested then sign up for some talks at next year’s festival. Anyway, I’ll be a little sad to leave the press office this week but its back to the science for me now.

Off to the British Science Festival in Newcastle

Getting excited for my trip up north to Newcastle for the British Science Festival that starts this weekend and runs all of next week. I’ll be going as an ‘undercover scientist’ as I’m attending in my role as Guardian journalist instead. I’ll be looking out for interesting new science to cover as news stories and attending the daily press conferences. I’ve got tickets for some of the talks too, with some famous names!

I’m also really looking forward to catching up with all the other Media Fellows from the 2013 batch as there will all be attending too. We can compare our experiences of the world of journalism. I’ll report back in a few weeks.