Friday, 27 June 2008

I am a scientist...

I've spent the past two weeks taking part in an event called I'm a Scientist, Get Me Out of Here. This was funded by the Wellcome Trust and was all about forging links between professional scientists and school students to further the students' understanding of science and remove a lot of the mystique that surrounds the area.

I was in a knockout contest against four other scientists - two cancer researchers, a chemist and a cosmetics researcher. Over the fortnight students from around the country bombarded us with questions about our work (and ourselves!), and we took part in many frantic live chat sessions where we were grilled mercilessly and made to defend our work in short snippets of text. They voted somebody out every few days.

And the result of all this is that after a week of eliminations, yours truly has been chosen by the students as the winning scientist. I win £500 for science communication - woo-hoo! I'm very surprised: I really thought one of the cancer researchers would get it (not only did the students clearly see cancer research as really worthy, but they were both much nicer than me in the chat sessions!).

But tempting as it is to gloat about winning, I see this as a victory for psychology rather than me. From the questions I was asked (which you can read if you look at the website - log in as a guest and choose GCSE 2 from the menu at the top), it was clear this was an area that the school-aged students simply hadn't been exposed to, and which they found really interesting. School science teaching is rooted in the 'big three' of physics, biology and chemistry, and these are massively important subjects. But there is clearly an appetite for psychology amongst the students too. Already hugely popular as an A-level, it's time for a lot more schools to start offering psychology at GCSE too. If nothing else, it surely would act as a powerful way of keeping girls interested in the more scientific end of education.

Saturday, 21 June 2008

Segways and the law

Here's a cutting I ripped from the painfully inoffensive Metro newspaper a few weeks ago. It's about the House of Lords - Britain's strange, unelected upper chamber - discussing whether Segways should be legal. I love this story, because there are clearly so many layers of untold story behind the scenes...

Lords: Give green light to Segways
Scooters known as Segways should be allowed on the roads, peers said yesterday. The electric two-wheelers got the backing after peers tried them out.... Segways are used by police and the public in parts of Europe along with the US. There have been concerns here about safety. But [Liberal Democrat] Lord Redesdale said: 'I drove one straight at Earl Atlee and failed to do him any damage at all.'

Doesn't that last sentence just reek of disappointment?

[Edit: I just found the whole debate here. There are a couple of words missing from Metro's report... "I drove straight at the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, with his consent, and failed to do him any damage at all - unfortunately!" I was right about the disappointment!]

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

The family minibus

I have a neighbour who regularly travels with his wife and their two children. To move the four of them around, he bought a minibus with 20 seats.

'Why have you done that?' I asked, choosing my words carefully. 'There are only four of you - wouldn't a car make a lot more sense? It would take up less space and use a lot less fuel.'

He gave me a level look. 'But once every six weeks it's my turn to take my son's football team to their match. I need a vehicle with 20 seats.'

'Er, okay. But why not buy a normal car and just hire a minibus on the odd occasions you need one?' I asked. 'It would be a lot cheaper, and probably easier for you.'

'Oh, who can be bothered with that?' he replied, and stomped off.

Okay, so this neighbour is fictitious, but I've had almost exactly the same conversation with many people, with the only difference being that the numbers are all 5 times lower. There are so many people who buy a car with five seats primarily to move one person around. When challenged, they always point out some achingly unusual event as justification ('What about when I need to take rubbish to the tip?') I mean, what's that? Twice a year? Three times?

As plans for congestion charging force us to think about the consequences of our travel more and more, it is the sheer bone-crunching illogic and irrationality of this thinking that drives me crazy. Cars are fundamentally badly designed in various ways (e.g., their need for huge slurpy soft tyres to stop them flying off the road), and one of their basic design faults is that they take up the same amount of valuable road-space to convey one person as five. As I've mentioned before, people are going to have to realise that if they travel alone 95% of the time, it is better for everyone - including them - if they get a one-person vehicle and hire something bigger on the odd occasion they need more space. It's such a shame that we're going to have to go through masses of congestion and heavy-handed legislation to make people act rationally. Bah.

Monday, 9 June 2008

Yellow lines

, originally uploaded by Alex Craven.

There has to be a better way to manage parking than these eyesores.