The Magic Number

Numbers are pretty powerful. These scribbly little symbols dictate so many aspects of our lives – from counting the cash left in our wallets to counting down the days until the end of the week. They help mould our understanding of time, frame our surroundings and have a constant appearance in everything we see and do. They make us judgemental, bring us happiness and provide us with power.

So where did these figure arise from? And when did they become so significant?

In one way we can view the first idea of a number to be difference between one and two objects, which dates back to primary human instincts, however it was not until thousands of years later that numbers became written figures and we started recognising their importance. After recognition of this importance, numbers, unlike letters, began to represent trade until we reach a time where, as a society, we gamble and invest away millions on these scrawny little lines. In essence it’s numbers revolving around numbers.

This all really stems from a podcast I recently listened to on RadioLab – a new addiction I’m currently using to soothe the pain of the early morning train. In this particular podcast, the concept of having a favourite number was debated and why it is that some people choose to have one.

I think it’s reasonable to assume that numbers are probably one of the most logical things that exist within our lives. Along with letters, they form the basis of language, speech and mathematics. So with such a prominent presence in every one of our lives, is it natural to have a favourite number? Or, when we associate numbers with logic, validity and reasoning, is it then simply irrational to place so much emotion into something entirely rational? Numbers can’t move, communicate or feel anything we do so why then should one number be better than another?

One prominent reason arose when a variety of people were asked whether they had a favourite number in the podcast study. And this was an association with something that had happened in their lives. For example if you loved the number nine because you were born on the ninth of the month or you have nine kids or you ate the best bagel of your life at 9pm. A surprising amount of the time, people seem to find tiny coincidences between unrelated events in order to entwine them to somehow justify a favourite number. So if your favourite number is four because your cat turned four on the day that you bought four pints at a bar called number four where you happened to meet the love of your life, then that’s totally justifiable. Okay, maybe not. Unless the love of your life’s name was four… then I guess that’s just about acceptable.

So let’s say this is a valid reason – favouritism defined by personal events. Based on the fact that numbers entrap so many parts of out lives, how do you pick which is the most important event? And surely as how in today’s society numbers consistently represent money and wealth, surely a higher number would be a better one? Yet you hardly ever hear anyone answering the ‘favourite number’ question with ‘a billion’.

Perhaps then we value personal attachment to particular numbers more than an association with money. Otherwise choosing your favourite number in the billions may just look rather greedy. It is likely that, as we tend to encounter lower numbers substantially more often than higher numbers, we find it easier to connect with numbers which we find in days of the week, fingers on your hand or the spare change from a weekly shop. And this isn’t too say everyone finds a deep emotional connection to every number under ten, however superstition and luck both creep up rather regularly. Why is the number thirteen unlucky, and why is the number seven lucky? If we didn’t connect with numbers on some level then we would probably have a thirteenth floor on every building in America. But as it stands, people still refuse to stay in hotel rooms 666 and thirteenth floors remain absent.

Clearly religious reasons play a part however I really think favouritism in numbers is influenced heavily by those around us.

When asked in the podcast what everyone’s favourite number was, an overwhelming majority came up with the same answer. Seven. Justifications for reasons included the way it sounded and the written symbol itself, alongside other far-fetched ideas. Someone even suggested the number of holes in the head. However a more mathematical explanation was that seven is a odd number. And not odd in the way that it’s opposite to even but in the way that it’s unusual. As the only number under ten so not be divisible by another number or multiplied to make another number under ten, it’s irrational. Or maybe just irritating. So perhaps people like this unusual-ness in a number, rather than something more rounded. Could we go as far as to say this our favourite number is reflected by our personality?

Well what about my favourite number? If I like the number seven does that make me sporadic and the number ten make me wholesome? The number thirteen superstitious and twenty two diplomatic? Well I thought the whole concept was slightly ridiculous until I decided to ask a few people – most of which weren’t bothered by any particular number. I only encountered a direct answer when I finally decided to pose the same question to my parents who – at the peak of all ridiculous answers – told me it was 42 because according to the fantasy book ‘The Hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy’, it’s the meaning of life. Oh and that we happen to live at 42, which actually came to them as an after thought. I guess what’s meaningful in a number changes from person to person. So maybe one day I’ll inherit this view and base my favourite number on something thats also a little bit nuts, but until then – until something happens causes me to crave some crazy numerical tattoo or only move into a house of a certain number – I think I’ll keep my views rather open to suggestion.

Agree? Disagree? What’s your favourite number and why? Comment below.


Coffee, commuting and creating something new

Having not long started a new job and realising a worrying amount of my time is spent thinking about coffee, an overloaded email inbox and the 06.37 train, it’s been a bit difficult to keep track of a blog. So I’ve decided that it’s probably better to spend my time on the morning commute writing about something useful on the train rather than sleeping unattractively against the window and end up dribbling down another commuter’s shirt.

Working in a job where it’s more cells of an excel spreadsheet that cells in a Petri dish, it’s easy to lose contact with the scientific world. Unless you’ve got a phone filled with apps vibrating every time a new discovery is made, or magazine subscriptions straight through your door, the amount of science in your daily life that becomes as important as catching that early morning train tends to deplete.

Regardless of career, I always hope to continue writing about whatever interests me – whether that’s science, skiing, surfing or just the post- student life.

So why write about science? Well to begin with, I ruled out falling into the PhD trap – sensible academic progression for some but for me, a trap full of endless late nights and grant proposals, cushioned by the thought of an extended student life. Probably because I don’t think I ever fully grasped lab work. The careful procedures undertaken, repeated and scrutinised which cleverly piece together even the smallest aspect of the scientific world is fascinating however, I think when it comes down to it, I’m just not sure I ever had the patience. Consequently, I have an enormous amount of respect for people who do. Being the one who usually spilt that 0.00001ml drop of liquid which probably cost the same amount as a small car, I think I’d generally rather leave the finer experiment details to others as opposed to contaminating an area with bacteria and clumsy hands. No matter how many times I repeated an experiment to the upmost precision, I guess I couldn’t stand never getting ‘perfect’ results. Which is clearly the whole point and what others thrive on. I always found with writing that bit more lenient. It’s more subjective. People form their own views and ideas around an article around that so there’s always the possibility of making it just that bit better, whether that’s in the clarity of what you’re writing or just adding an alternative opinion. I always felt I wanted to be involved with something which would grab people’s attention, even people who didn’t have the faintest idea what it might be about. Shoving it into people’s faces, right at the forefront of scientific research.

Right now, is science journalism at it’s best? Probably not – at the moment you still rarely hear people discussing current science unless it bursts on our tv screens within the first five minutes of the news at 10. New social media groups such as ‘I fucking love science’, a comical Facebook page-turned internet science sensation, have hit the nail on the head. Targeting the biggest audience possible and making science approachable for everyone. And they do so by wiping out statistics and spreadsheets and replacing it with comic strips and quotes. Scientific jargon is what creates a barrier between great scientists and their accomplishments, and the rest of the world. So that’s what I’m trying to do- scrap the jargon and start making science understandable. And to try to create something- whether it be a magazine, book, webpage, app you might use for five minutes on the loo, or a toy that explains the carbon cycle to a five year old, it’s all about making science that little bit easier.

I also reckon I’m one of a few who absolutely loved their degree. All around us, every day, there’s pressure to go into something directly degree-related. As if the first job on your doorstep after leaving university will be your dream job. And if it’s not, queue every neighbour asking you about what you’re doing now you’ve left uni and appearing apologetic that you’ve ‘wasted’ an exceedingly large amount of money to end up working behind the tills in Tesco’s. And waiting eagerly to hear the follow up answer; your next plans which involve that well-paid internship at a major law firm with minimal tea-making and guaranteed to land you a fantastic job after three weeks. So although I’m continuing to write because I enjoy it, but it’s also nice to be able to say to people ‘yeah, I’m still involved with science’. Without a doubt, they’ll be a mixture of great and awful jobs before I get to the one that happens to slot in perfectly with the degree.

So I guess even though I’m working in something pretty unrelated, what at first glance seems like an awful commute, actually makes time for something very related indeed.

Tender Tendons and Slippery Slopes


It’s easy to forget about the possibility of injury when drifting through metres of powdered snow 2000m above sea level. The same as how, when you’re in Alps, it’s easy to forget about that annoying young guy in the office who has been there half as long as you and gets twice the credit, or the broken lamp in the living room that your partner keeps yelling at you to fix. Amongst clear blue skies, snow covered goggles and 6 year old locals who are scarily fast on a pair of skis, such outdoor adventures always come with an element of danger. Of course there are countless other risky sports, however I think people often overlook just how serious injuries produced from skiing and snowboarding can be. One caught edge could mean a broken collar bone and six weeks of physiotherapy. One slippery ice patch might equal a busted knee and crutches. I guess the upside is you might not have to see the irritating guy in the office with six weeks off work.

Not only does skiing give the chance to replace the view of the adjacent apartment block with seemingly endless mountain ranges, but it also drives us to make the most of what we can’t do at home. This sport somehow spurs us to get out of bed at 8am in order to be the first of many keen individuals on the slopes. And naturally once we’re in our element, a mixture of excitement, the altitude and the six-and-a-bit pints that are still lingering inside us from the previous night push us to go higher, steeper, faster. So I still find it rather worrying the amount of people who choose not the wear helmets both on and off-piste. Hurtling down an icy slope at 50mph lacking any sort of head protection seems like the equivalent of driving down the A23 in a car with no body, no framework and no seatbelts. But maybe we’ll throw in some snow on the dual carriageway to cushion the landing.

With the most common ski injuries involving the knee, the ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) becomes a frequent topic of injury-related conversation among skiers. The ACL is the short central ligament connecting the femur to the tibia and can be subjected to rupture or tearing. As the lower leg is forced forward when the upper leg remains stationary, the ligament becomes overstretched. Luckily the advancement of ski, boot and binding designs has allowed for softer falls and release of skis before your legs manage to throw themselves all the way over your head, or perhaps the head of whoever else you’ve managed to take out down the run2. However, recent ski and boot design also has its drawbacks; the insulation around the lower legs puts a higher amount of pressure on the knees upon falls. In addition, the curved edges of newer types of carving skis reduces friction between the skis and snow, pulling skis away from you when turning and taking your knees with them as well. You might think at low speeds you have less chance of injury – which is usually true if you take a tumble and land on your head – however knee injuries can often end up worse as there is a lack of an abrupt force to open the bindings1.So what can we do to prevent these accidents? Not pushing yourself to the absolute limit is a sure-fire way of reducing the chance of breaking both legs at once. And to be honest, a beginner throwing themselves down icy moguls is never going to look cool. Taking lessons to improve technique is always good and having correctly-fitted bindings is vital; research has showed that skiers who have the wrong DIN settings or borrow others skis are eight times as more likely to injure themselves. In addition, a day of rest – preferably sitting in a hot tub, treating yourself to something that’s not pasta or baguette, or just having a four hour nap – gives your muscles a chance to recover1.

With the winter Olympics grasping everyone’s attention, the high risk of injury from snowsports is slowly becoming more apparent. Only recently did Czech snowboarder Sarka Pancochova go plummeting head-first down the womens’s slopestyle course, smashing her helmet on landing. Michael Schumacher’s disastrous accident a few months’ back was spread across the news; these headlines are often all it takes for people to think twice about taking risks on the mountains. It is great, however, to have the chance to support and admire the incredible British skiers and snowboarders that have competed so far. These guys are pulling off moves that I couldn’t even land on SSX games on the PS2. But does this give us the temptation to attempt such ridiculous stunts? Let’s hope it’ll give rise to a new generation of gold medallists as opposed to a new generation of back braces. With so many accidents occurring off-piste, it’s becoming more and more important to prepare for the worst. Attempting to trek miles from the nearest chalet in order to have a ‘sweet ride’ in a potential avalanche zone, dressed only in baggy shorts and an XXL hoodie is only going to end in tears. And probably a fat medical bill. The vast majority of people (particularly students, I’ve found) who don’t realise how much of a burden medical expenses can be, is also rather troubling. Surrounded in an NHS bubble in the UK, it’s easy to forget how insanely expensive it is to buy even a packet of paracetamol abroad. So don’t be too surprised if you find out that your parents have sold the dog in order to get your broken arm in a sling.

So whether you’re intending to pull off that 14,000-McMelonGrabPorkPie (or any trick with a similarly ridiculous name) or attempting to merely just stay standing on a snowboard, a little protection can’t hurt. Decide which slopes are suitable and invest in winter sports insurance and you’ll have yourself a nice getaway. Down a bottle of gin following a NekNominination and go hurtling down a black slope on your second day and no doubt you’ll be back at home with your partner yelling at you about that broken lamp in the living room again before you know it.



How entertaining should science journalism really be?


I only recently came across the term ‘infotainment’. As an amalgamation of ‘information’ and ‘entertainment’, the term describes a style of writing that is both informative and amusing. The article in which I discovered this was based upon the suggestion that “Too much contemporary science writing falls under the category of ‘infotainment’”.

As a science journalist, I can imagine that one of the trickiest tasks is getting the balance of information and entertainment right. Too much information and you’re squashing your potential audience into those who care enough about the subject to read more than two lines; too much entertainment and the punch-lines become more interesting than the subject line. I think it’s easy to look at a journalistic piece and comment on whether the writer has included enough results or references or researchers quotes. And of course all these factors make up the foundation of the piece, whereas it’s often difficult to judge an article for being too funny, too catchy or targeting too wide of an audience. Perhaps because it’s well written?

In my head, the world of science journalism is like a roundabout, with research and grant proposals and scientific publications following each other in a clockwise direction. Successful research gives way to great results, which in turn gives rise to further research. Stuck in traffic on the slip road which trails off the roundabout are the journalists who act as the bridge between the science world and pretty much everyone else. And they’re responsible for making sure that every piece of information that leaves that roundabout can be understood. And then processed into something that someone other than a lab technician or plant science lecturer wants to read. The excel spreadsheets pumped out of laboratories and compressed into journals then thrown towards journalists to be deciphered are the building blocks for great writing. So I guess it’s pretty challenging, considering the amount of headlines that the public get bombarded with on a daily basis. But I guess it’s also why it appeals to me. In my opinion, it’s easy to write informatively. It’s simple to tell a reader exactly what results were found after x number of clinical trials were performed, just like it’s simple to tell a reader exactly what you had on your toast this morning. But what’s interesting and memorable and readable is what difference it’s going to make.

So I think as long as all the facts are right, and all the building blocks are there, why not make an article as entertaining as possible? Squeeze in as much ‘infotainment’ as possible. Of course it depends on your audience but in my case, I’d rather read a ten-page article on something that will want to make me turn the page, than twenty lines on something that won’t.

The article I highlighted evaluates critical science journalism against infotainment science journalism, emphasizing that “infotainment science journalism rarely challenges the validity of the scientific research study or criticises its conclusions”. Within the last century, I have no doubt that the rise in the number of articles in which the validity of the research is undermined or ignored has risen, mainly due to competition between tabloids to produce the most scandalous headline. And I am sure that countless journalists overlook the accuracy of data in order to publish a piece with ‘dramatic’ or ‘life-changing’ results; however this is usually due to the journalist, not the style of writing. Informative articles can be misleading, just as entertaining pieces can be incredibly accurate. In contrast to the quoted statement, I actually believe infotainment journalism often finds flaws within the research in order to bring up an alternative view to comment on. I accept, however, that it would be refreshing to find a detailed critical analysis at the end of an entertaining article or more quotes or figures directly from the original paper. Considering the readers of an article would rarely venture towards the original paper – or often, even struggle to find it – it is of such high importance that the facts that are reproduced are the correct ones, and that the writer takes the time to study whether the research is worth a headline or not.

But I still firmly believe that the entertainment value of science journalism cannot be undermined. Without infotainment, the potential target audience would diminish and all that’s left would be undergraduates desperately trying to find a 50th reference for their lab report due in the following day. Clever science writers and opinionated journalists are what’s pushing science forwards in the 21st century. These are the ones making it more appealing, the ones inspiring future generations of writers, journalists and researchers who kick start the next set of experiments and the next set of headlines. So of course it’s important to criticise any journal papers that might be publicised, but it’s the way that a journalist can make stem cells seem more interesting than that hilarious cat video on YouTube that’s going to catch people’s eye. After you’ve got people’s attention for the first paragraph, the nitty-gritty hard science, facts and statistics are all easy writing.

The need for critical science journalism (May 2013) The Guardian

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The bigger predator

Shark proof wetsuit

I remember reading a while ago about the development of a wetsuit designed to steer sharks away from surfers and swimmers- a development cleverly built upon a shark’s inability to distinguish between colours – which seemed perfect for keeping water-lovers out of danger. However recently, the news of a shark cull enforced by the Western Australian government is beginning to once again highlight sharks as a threat to human lives.

Approximately, five humans are killed by sharks each year, compared to the startling 100 million sharks that we slaughter1, 2. So when making shark fin soup (a worryingly popular dish served in China) becomes as easy as making beans on toast, what exactly is it that gives these fish such a bad name? Existing on the planet around 420 million years before we arrived, I’m pretty sure sharks would have found a stable food source before we appeared as a miniscule speck on their evolutionary timeline. And they did – fish, and perhaps the odd seal which might come as a birthday treat. In fact, despite grimacing an impressive set of 30,000 teeth over their lifetime, one of the last items on a shark’s diet plan is Kevin from across the road. Or Mary from work. Or that annoying grandson that your sister brings round too much. Or anyone in fact. Human blood to sharks is what that reduced BLT sandwich in the corner of Tesco’s is to us – tempting to start with but after the first bite realising there are better things for lunch in the adjacent aisle – or in a shark’s case, another 50 metres underwater. Otherwise why on earth would the majority of shark attacks be one-leg bites as opposed to entire human consumption? Yet we still consider the possibility of losing a leg when swimming out more than fifty metres in any vaguely warm water. Out of the 350-plus different species of shark, three are considered to be ‘dangerous’ to humans- the great white, bull and tiger. Although found in a number of different oceans – as well as lakes and rivers – these species rarely venture above a few hundred metres below sea level. So unless your next summer vacation is underwater somewhere in the middle of the pacific, the likelihood is you will be able to enjoy a shallow snorkel and a ‘99 Flake on the beach in peace.

The small number of attacks that do make it to headlines are typically down to holidaymakers swimming too far out at sea or surfers splashing in a seal-like manner at the water’s surface. With two extra senses – electroreception which picks up electrical fields, and lateral line detecting changes in water pressure3 – sharks are pretty well-adapted to hunting, and we are often seen as an easy target. But even so, most sharks would be uninterested in ruining our beach volleyball game or sandcastles for a bite of something they know won’t taste that great. Somehow even a ‘disaster’ story about some ninety-something year old who clumsily fell off a harbour only to then have a toe bitten by a 6 inch shark somehow has the potential to send the country into worry. In addition to exaggerated news stories, terribly edited sea-themed ‘horror’ movies such an Open Water (which really is rubbish) don’t exactly steer away from the ‘predator’ label. It would be unjustified to blame Spielberg’s blockbuster entirely on the wariness of humans towards these animals, however you can’t help but wonder whether there would be fewer shark stereotypes if Jaws had never made it to production.

So when more people are killed by vending machines each year than sharks, perhaps Australia’s government budget should be put to better use. I’m not saying it wouldn’t be useful to add a few more precautionary signs on high-risk beaches and that the ‘shark-friendly’ wetsuit isn’t an incredibly clever idea, however it may be sensible to consider – out of us and them – who the bigger predator is.

1 (Accessed Jan 2014)

2  100 million sharks killed each year, say scientists (March 2013) The Guardian

3 (Accessed Jan 2014)

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Is there such thing as a hangover-free pint?


Speaking as a graduate – or in other words, a recent Jagerbomb-drinking machine – the thought of spending a Saturday night (or a Monday – why the hell not) drunk and not faced with a hangover seems too good (far, far too good) to be true. To know that what follows an evening of revealing our true love for that awful chart song, hitting on that guy who’s probably a 4 but our beer goggles tell us an 8, and deciding a bar stool is a good place to take a nap, is not a painful stabbing headache, would be a Godsend.

So when I heard news of a new pill which mimics the effect of alcohol without the horrendous morning-after side effects, my first thoughts turned to where I could order my years prescription. Manufactured to target the neurotransmitter GABA which acts upon selective receptors, the pill blocks the activation of pathways which lead to the unwanted side effects experienced from heavy drinking, such as headaches and nausea1, 2, 3. On paper, it sounds like the perfect remedy for a night spent staggering home when you have a gruesome presentation at 8am the following morning. Or at that staff do where you drink far too much and blow out on a cab home. This hangover-less discovery may give rise to not-so-drunk driving.

The progression of tipsy to hammered on this pill would require over-stimulation of the GABA receptors in the brain, the action of which leads to impaired motor function and slurred speech3. Surely these effects, then, could be increased to dangerous levels? It is already known that the fatal effects of alcohol such as respiratory failure are due to a rise in ethanol in the blood  so without the intoxicating effects of alcohol, is there still a chance of overdosing on this pill? Possibly, as the alcohol-induced sickess is usually what results in us saying ‘no’ to another round. The current ‘breathalyzer’ method of testing for drink driving – which measures blood alcohol content – would become ineffective and money would subsequently have to be pumped into devising a replacement. Yet the potential long term benefits are enormous; everything from decreased liver damage to reduction in cases of fetal alcohol syndrome.

I would assume then, if this pill makes it through clinical trials and eventually onto the market, there would be no need for high percentage alcoholic drinks, eradicating the stomach-turning taste that comes with them. So would this mean a trip to the local pub ends up with us all ordering a pill alongside a fruit smoothie? With it being safe to say that not all alcohol tastes great, it does (for whatever ridiculous reasons) leave us wanting more… and more. I’m pretty sure a line of tequila shots wouldn’t nearly be as tempting if they each tasted like a Viennese whirl. There’s just something exciting about drinking something horrific right? Especially realising you can drink four times more of a foul-flavoured liquid than that hench lad who you’ve engaged in a competition with. However, the thought of what might happen without the ‘this tastes disgusting, I should probably stop’ barrier is, predictably, worrying. Typically, I guess it’s better to know that the stuff you’re putting in your body actually tastes as bad as its effects are.

But still, would the idea of being able to pop a pill into an apple juice carton and drink without the consequences be publically embraced? Probably. And if these were readily available to buy across a bar with, significantly cheaper, alcohol-free beer, would I be the first one to buy a round? Of course.

1 Alcohol without the hangover? Its’ closer than you think (Nov 2013) The Guardian

2 Get drunk without the hangover on Professer Nutt’s pill (Nov 2013) The Telegraph

3 Davies, M. (2003) The role of GABAA receptors in mediating the effects of alcohol in the central nervous system, J. Psychiatry Neurosci., 28: 263-274

Image from (Accessed 22 Nov 2013)