Sunday, 23 July 2006

Photographing Scientists

I've been following a discussion here and here about the cheesy, clichéd style of taking photos of scientists, mainly those in the life sciences, involving coloured lights, fog, wacky perspectives, extreme wide-angles and bubbling flasks.

Since I don't get to do any experiments, wear a white (or any other colour) lab coat, or play around with impressive looking apparati, my attempts at depicting the kind of work I and my colleagues do are usually quite unimpressive. All we do everyday is sit around in our offices, in front of a computer or a notebook, occasionally scribbling random greek letters on a big whiteboard, accompanied by a cup of coffee in hand. No machines which go "bing!" The picture on the left is about as much fun as it gets, Stephen Hawking listening to a talk by Roger Penrose about his latest ideas on quantum state reduction via gravitational interactions.

So in a way I understand the urge to spice things up with unrepresentative imagery. Visually, a lot of a scientist's job is as interesting as any other office worker's. No one is really interested in seeing people think. Occasionally, there's a really animated discussion with equations and hands flying all over the place but that's about as exciting as it gets around here.

Still, why should scientists care about having their dull (at best), or menacing (at worst) perception by the world at large spruced up by photographic glitz? For me, it crosses the line between documentary and imaginary. A fundamental goal of science is to present the clearest and accurate picture of nature that we can. Although it is part and parcel of the day-to-day machinations of science that we may emphasize our own particular contributions, and and are every bit as emotionally involved in our work as anyone else, lying about one's work is an anathma. One can make an analogy with journalism, once a reporter starts making stuff up in their articles, they have crossed the line of jounalistic integrity. Scientists have at least as strong a responsibility to present fair, balanced and truthful accounts of their work as possible.

I would posit that this onus extends to the portrayal of the work we do, in whatever medium. Here, the TV show CSI and its spinoffs have a lot to answer for. Stylish offices, flashy computer graphics, DNA tests which take 10 seconds, these are all absolute fictions. Of course it's entertainment, but one of the main attractions of a show like that is it is supposed to make science, and scientists "sexy". However, there is a danger of misrepresenting what science can and cannot achieve, as well as giving a totally misleading account of work conditions.

Still, having to take pictures of my workmates at work (as opposed to at play) is akin to pulling teeth. It's not an easy job but the challenge to do it in an interesting way without resorting to gimmicks is a worthwhile one which I implore other photographers to tackle. Otherwise, it is missing spirit of science and doing it a disservice.

Saturday, 22 July 2006

Science Reporting

The Guardian reports:

1. Don't rub in suncream
It turns out we have got it wrong all these years. If you rub suncream into your skin until it vanishes, regardless of what factor it is, you will have reduced its efficacy to zero, and your risk of skin cancer will be undiminished. The correct way to apply it, it transpires, is to slide on a thick buttery layer that remains clearly visible, and leave it there to dry on the surface of your skin. Attractive, eh? Maybe best to cover up or stay out of the sun altogether...

This is an example where journalistic pressures have distorted the actual scientific findings. This bit of reporting comes from a recent report from the The Restoration of Appearance and Function Trust which was also reported by the BBC (who did a better job, but still managed to distort the issue). The scientific paper upon which these findings are reported is,
Haywood R, Warden P, Sanders R, Linge C. Sunscreens inadequately protect against ultraviolet A-induced free radicals in skin: implications for aging and melanoma? J Invest Dermatol 2003;121:862–68. It's three years old so I'm puzzled why only now is this issue being trotted out to the public. Anyway, a closer reading of the paper spells a slightly different picture to the popular accounts.

The findings were that rubbed in sunscreen had minimal protection against UVA induced production of free-radicals. Free radicals are a possible mechanism by which certain types of skin cancers (melanomas) may be induced, though the link is far from clear in humans. The protection against UVB was practically unaffected by rubbing in the sunscreen, it is usually how SPF is determined . UVB has been strongly linked to basal and squamous cell carcinomas, the mechanism is direct DNA damage.

The Guardian report totally misrepresents the reduction in effectiveness of rubbed-in sunscreen, not reducing it to zero as claimed. The BBC report fails to mention that UVB, aside from causing reddening of the skin, is also responsible for skin cancer as well.

Why is this important? I'm not advocating we become blasé about the dangers of sun exposure (I grew up in a country where we're paranoid about skin cancer, not without cause mind you with the highest skin cancer rate in the world, 6 times that of the UK) and it's a risk which can be easily avoided. The issue of science reporting is much greater and extends to the role of the media in presenting science to the public. The public perception of science is greatly skewed by the "spin" journalists and editors place upon science stories. The real issues are not so simple as the media makes them out to be, inviting simplistic responses. The research upon which this latest scare-mongering is based upon seems like perfectly good science, the methods and results are uncontroversial. However, the interpretation and conclusions as translated in the media are unwarranted.

With scientific issues such as anthropogenic climate change, radiological safety, pollution, biodiversity and asteroidal impact threats of great importance, media driven agenda are not beneficial, especially when the scientific bases upon which we need to decide what actions to take are being misreported to the public, who ultimately have the power to shape governmental and corporate action.

It also undermines public trust as well. With the media cherrypicking and presenting contrary views, science is portrayed as unreliable, arbitrary and ineffective, when in fact the picture, though uncertain in parts (the bits the media tend to concentrate on), is in the whole consistent and reliable.

Addendum: I found the latest paper on this result, Rachel Haywood. 2006: Relevance of Sunscreen Application Method, Visible Light and Sunlight Intensity to Free-Radical Protection: A Study of ex vivo Human Skin. Photochemistry and Photobiology: Vol. preprint. It's a pre-print so it hasn't been published yet. This paper basically repeats the results of the aforementioned paper, perhaps over a wider range of exposures and target preparations. The link between UVA/free-radicals and melanoma is still to be firmly established however.

What is Science?

We live in an irrational world. Despite feasting upon the fruits of technology which grow from the tree of science, a sizable proportion of the population have a poor understanding of what science is, and is not. I will simply refer to Ben Goldacre's Bad Science column in the Guardian for a trawl through woeful and disgraceful examples of pseudoscience capitalizing on peoples' gullibility and lack of informed reasoning.

So instead of concentrating on what isn't science, I thought I might add a few words on science as a framework of reasoning and for making sense of a complex world. The value of science isn't just in the spinoffs, the application of the results of science, but as a concerted endeavour to understand the whole universe, from the stars, the ground upon which we walk, the life around us, and to the ends of time. My thoughts are very general and broad, there are exceptions to everything of course but in the main, I think science as a whole possess the following properties.

Science is a process. To make a tenuous analogy, the economy is a process, rather than an object. Science is continually evolving, it changes in response to many factors, some internal, but most importantly to external input, observation and experiment. Without this, science would be a sterile, onanistic activity. There are no received truths, the final arbiter is nature itself. Science is both reactive and proactive. Reactive in the sense that science must continually accommodate new results. Proactive in that it seeks to find the new results which would change science itself. The least interesting science is where there is nothing new to discover.

Science is introspective. Science is not, contrary to popular perception, about absolute certainty and truth. The hallmarks of a vigorous science is constructive debate and discussion. By subjecting our theories and results to the greatest scrutiny, the more confident we can be about their reliability if they pass these tests. What may seem to outsiders like indecision, qualification, dithering and caution, is actually thoughtful consideration of the complexities of the subject. It's not a case of right or wrong usually, rather a case of less or more valid in a particular context. This can be confusing to an outsider who expects the opposite.

Science is like betting. A good punter studies the form, tries to gather as much information about past performances as well as takes into account current conditions to make an informed guess as to future performance. This is what science does with the world. It studies how the world works and tries to infers the mechanisms by which it functions and hence hopefully how it will work in given circumstances. Our theories are bets on what would happen. The more learn about the world, the more we can refine our models and be more confident about our wagers. Let's give a simple example, related to Dawkins' famous quote (River Out of Eden):

Show me a cultural relativist at thirty thousand feet and I'll show you a hypocrite. Airplanes are built according to scientific principles and they work. They stay aloft and they get you to a chosen destination. Airplanes built to tribal or mythological specifications such as the dummy planes of the Cargo cults in jungle clearings or the bees-waxed wings of Icarus don't.

Why do we generally not step off the edges of cliffs? It's because it is a reasonable assumption that gravity exists and rapid deceleration at the end one's vertical journey is not good for the human body. Why do we think that it is reasonable to "believe" in gravity? Not because we have Einstein's Field Equations but because historically, objects which are without support generally accelerate towards the ground. Science is just a small step further from this in that it is a systematic way of coming to a justifiable or reasonable assumption about how things will behave. If you're even slightly curious, you may want to investigate how long it take an object to fall a certain distance. You could extend this to the case when you give the object some initial velocity. How about horizontal velocity etc? Galileo did some experiments and came up with a set of rules which seemed to describe the trajectory of ballistic objects. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle had some ideas on the same subject. However, he based his conclusions on how objects ought to behave, rather than how they actually do behave. Unsurprisingly, ballistic trajectories envisioned by medieval engineers and gunners based upon Aristotelian ideas were inconsistent with Galileo's calculations, and what were later incorporated in Newton's Laws of Motion.

Science is a process by which we come to such conclusions about the world. However, these conclusions are aren't absolute truths, each comes with their own caveats and degrees of certainty, depending upon the results, theory and the interplay between them, and how they fit within the entire structure of scientific thought. Some scientific conclusions are so certain that it would be perverse to believe otherwise, e.g. the fact of gravity. Similarly certain conclusions are that the Earth is not flat, the Earth revolves around the Sun, the existence of atoms, evolutionary change, and local realism is not a good physical model. Down the spectrum, there are conclusions which are less certain, but still reasonable to take as working hypotheses, the Standard Model of particle physics is one example. At the edge of what could conceivably be called science (rather than mathematical speculation) is String Theory.

One could liken this attitude to Bayesian analysis. Given all the observations and experiments that have ever occurred, what is the post priori probability that a given outcome is likely? Science represents our best guess given everything we know (not to mention a consistent framework in which to place such knowledge in context). Being unscientific is ignoring the evidence and betting on the outsider when the payoff is not worth the risk (cf. MMR).

I think it's important to try to impress upon the public why scientists accept the validity of their results, and why they all come with degrees of uncertainty. I guess it's a fundamental worldview in which one have to accept that issues are not black and white, we live in a complex world and that its explanations may not be reducible to a sound bite. However, we're instinctual creatures, prone to acting on gut feelings about what is "right" or "wrong". Getting the public to fight our natural human instincts and be rational may be the greatest continuing battle for science.

Journal of Fluid Mechanics 50th

It was the 50th anniversary of the Journal of Fluid Mechanics today and the Applied Maths and Theoretical Physics department to which I belong had a celebration including quite a lot of champagne. I lift up my glass to them and dedicate this photo to the continued success of the journal.

I have a large version of this up in the common room of the building which is shared with some fluid dynamicists. I often get questions from them and their visitors about whether it is a real photo, or maybe I've been a bit clever with computer rendering or Photoshop. In fact, it's one of my earliest photos, when I was just getting into photography. To me, the photo invokes a connotation of black holes and gravity waves, ripples in space-time. The relationship isn't so far fetched, acoustic black holes have been proposed as systems in which to test general relativistic predictions on the Earth.

Friday, 21 July 2006


I've decided to join the herd of web log "authors". I've occasionally posted editorial comment on my own web pages but a blog seemed to be a good way of organising some of my thoughts and various bits of writing I've done on a few technical matters.

I am a theoretical physicist in an emerging field of enquiry. My day to day job involves investigating how we can utilise the quantum nature of matter and light to perform information processing. My main interests are in finding ways of getting around the deleterious effects of decoherence in various implementations of quantum computation and in characterising the quantumness of states and processes through interference phenomena. Of course, you can't be involved in quantum theory without bumping into questions of interpretations and foundations, but I try to leave the core issues to those more philosophically inclined. I may, from time to time, comment on particularly interesting paper which come to my attention. The whole field very broad so I apologise for any glaring omissions.

My other passion is photography. I took it up in my final year of my graduate studies, mainly as a way of getting away from writing up my thesis, but it seems to have taken a life of its own. It's a passion which has many facets. Some people are very much gearheads, worrying about film-developer combinations, MTF curves, densitometry, mega-pixels, high-ISO noise and so forth. The engineer part of me happily engages with that aspect of photography and I think being a physicist helps in understanding the principles behind the technology of photography. But equipment is only a fraction of the craft, a photo is not merely a collection of points with certain hue, saturation and brightness values. A photo represents something and being able to make a photo which works as an artistic, social and/or personal statement is a task encompassing much more than having a fancy camera and a expensive lenses. I enjoy most sorts of photography but my favourite revolves around documenting the people and activities around me. Such micro-social photography serves as a window into the communities to which I belong. Where we are often matters less than who we're with, I try to capture an essence of my friends and family.

Though I have felt that blogs were little different from vanity self-publishing, I've recently stumbled upon some interesting science blogs which show that they can actually be informative and not simply the ramblings of self-centred, glory-seeking, egoists;-). I make no hubristic assumptions that anyone will actually read my posts, but if you have happened upon these pages by accident or design, I hope you will enjoy whatever random jottings follow.