MyOneScienceTweet – my top two

Over on Twitter (where I’m not a member), the hashtag #MyOneScienceTweet has been trending amongst scientists. The science side of the site was asked, “If you could have the entire world know just one thing about your field of study, then what would it be?” It’s a goldmine filled with interesting soundbites, frustrations and humour, from which I have selected two which stood out for me.

The first is this one, particularly as social media is full of posts being shared declaring to have a cure or treatment for cancer, whilst the print media is little better whenever they report on cancer treatments.

 

The second is this one, simply because it highlights the often amusing side of science.

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Blue Planet II is smashing the viewing figures

In one of the most reassuring signs this year, the cutting edge nature documentary series Blue Planet II, narrated by Sir David Attenborough, is dominating in the ratings here in the UK. On the night of the season premiere on the 29th of October, Blue Planet II was watched by an average of 10.3 million live viewers, compared to 9,6 million for the Strictly Come Dancing viewers (which was on before), and 4.3 million for X-Factor. I end up watching the show on a Monday, whilst many others watch it through the week, apparently bringing the figures up to 14.01 million.

For the second episode, set in the darkest depths of the oceans, 10.8 million watched live – a figure which will rise when the full viewing figures come in. Last year’s Planet Earth II never dipped below 11 million viewers per episode, peaking at 13.14 million, so Blue Planet II looks to be surpassing it already. I’d love to know how much of the audience is young people potentially being inspired both to study and protect their planet. I’d also like to review each episode, but that’s not going to happen.

If you’ve not managed to watch the show already, enjoy the trailer.

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Jurassic Park – the most important fan theory and the franchise future which never was

Let me get one thing out of the way first: I hate Jurassic World. My opinion on the film is often dismissed due to the assumption that I hate it because of scientific inaccuracies, when really I think it is a terrible film which failed to understand what was good about the original Jurassic Park film. Worse than that, it was a success, meaning that we now have no chance of getting a better version of the franchise and have to suffer through more sub-par films. Admittedly, I did have some accuracy-related criticisms before the film came out and since then I added a few more (bloody inaccurate stegosaurs), but mostly I hated it as a piece of cinema, to the point where I have several draught posts which went on and on critiquing the film that I doubt I will ever publish.

At around the same time as I was becoming increasingly despondent about the franchise, I was rereading the books. I couldn’t help but think that the franchise would slot right in with the modern move towards the big budget, gritty, serialised TV shows. Jurassic Park was a brilliant family film, whereas Jurassic Park the TV show could be much more adult watching (with a better name, naturally). The films do not follow the books, leaving a lot of unseen events which could be pilfered from the writings of Crichton whilst adding a lot more. I wanted to see more about the business side of things, the ruthless industrial espionage which jeopardises everything. The show would be about people, not dinosaurs, much in the same way that The Walking Dead is about people rather than zombies – they just happen to be people living through a zombie apocalypse.

My idea faces some major obstacles, not least that Jurassic World did well and its sequel, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, is out next year (I will still try to stay optimistic). The other major problem is that a series with similar themes has recently done brilliantly: Westworld. Also from the mind of Michael Crichton, Westworld has many of the same philosophical themes, lots of intrigue surrounding business, and some fascinating characters. It’s what Jurassic Park could have been.

I will still fantasise about what could have been and a recent fan theory has plugged some gaps in my ideas. Originating on Reddit, this fan theory has found a wider audience thanks to Cracked covering it in one of their videos. Watch for yourself:

Why do I love it? Well, firstly it makes quite a lot of sense and takes care of some inaccuracies. It also takes care of one of the major scientific inaccuracies in Jurassic Park which I don’t have a big problem with for the original film – the technique for extracting DNA just would not work. This never particularly bothered me as it was wild speculation at the time which made the film work, it’s only really since then that scientists have been able to say that it is inaccurate. So is the new technique mentioned in Jurassic World, by the way. Rebooting the series would have us relying on a well known inaccuracy, whereas this fan theory suggests that us film-watchers have been misled in the same way that many of the major characters were misled.

Imagine incorporating this fan theory into a rebooted TV series. Dodgson’s company, BioSyn, would desperately be trying to copy InGen’s cloning technique and failing miserably, having to resort to espionage and theft in an attempt to find out just how Hammond was doing it. Meanwhile, Hammond was taking more of a Jack Horner-esque approach by manipulating the genetics of extant animals, putting him over a decade ahead of BioSyn. It was all a show but he needs experts to sign off on the park and establish that these theme park monsters are convincing as dinosaurs. At the same time, we would be seeing many of the park issues which are found in the book, particularly escaping dinosaurs (a friend of mine suggested a Predator-style film as a worthwhile sequel, which would make an excellent focused episode) and we would have some resolution on the sick Triceratops (which is a Stegosaurus in the book).

In Jurassic World, the Masrani company owns the park and it is they who are responsible for abominations such as the Indominus rex. I’ve disliked the idea of hybrids since the original Jurassic Park 4 concepts came out, so basing a film around them was unlikely to ever really appeal to me, however, in the context of my imaginary series, the Masrani company might be a competing company who have managed to see through the InGen ruse and are making their own dinosaurs, even looking at bizarre hybrids which tend to fail (in a castle in Switzerland?).

There is plenty of source material available too. There were a number of comics which, if I remember correctly, did look at escaping dinosaurs having to be tracked down. There was also a planned animated series set after the first film – Escape From Jurassic Park – aimed at adults and which had some decent ideas. Some of the artwork is available and a full rundown of the individual episodes too, see here. I particularly like the duplicity of Hammond, deceiving the others into thinking that he intends to set up a biological preserve when he plans to reopen the park, the introduction of new characters, the development of BioSyn’s Dinoworld resort in Brazil using stolen InGen dinosaurs, issues arising for BioSyn due to the rapid growth of InGen dinosaurs, raptors hunting marines, escaped dinosaurs spreading through South America causing opportunist hunters, poachers and scientists to try to stake their claims; all ideas which could be used.

Admittedly, a Jurassic Park reboot series could go very wrong. I don’t hate the series Terra Nova, but that is nowhere near the quality I would want even though it was a dinosaur series produced by Spielberg.

Alternatively, Cracked also did a video about how to improve Jurassic World through a simple tweak:

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This year’s worst science headline was an obituary

In September this year, palaeontologist Mike Getty sadly died whilst out in the field, a man whom a friend of mine described as the best field palaeontologist they had ever met. The Daily Mail website, surprisingly, had some rather well-researched information about his life which would have made for a good obituary, however, there was one big problem. They decided to go with a headline stating that Getty’s colleagues have denied that he died from exposure to ancient bacteria. They didn’t simply pull this headline out of their arse, which is where they got the whole idea about ancient bacteria in the first place, they also went through the effort of pestering his grieving friends and colleagues for soundbites to confirm their egregious speculation. I did a search back when this article first came to light and found nothing to suggest that this bizarre idea came from anywhere but the messed up minds of the Daily Mail staff. (Part of me does not want to link to this because I don’t want to increase traffic to the site, but here it is anyway.)

I don’t expect accuracy from the Daily Mail but I am shocked that they would post such bullshit when someone has died. Someone has perhaps watched too much Fortitude and studied very little palaeontology.

For a much better article written after his death, see here.

RIP Mike Getty

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The best headline about Dickinsonia, ever?

Dickinsonia is one of those pesky Ediacaran mysteries which persistently defies classification. Think of an animal group and someone has suggested that Dickinsonia belongs to it. Think of a group outside of Animalia and there’s a decent chance that Dickinsonia has been placed there too. In more recent years, there has been a tendency to see it as a potential placozoan – the simplest of animals – often in a very cautious manner, or at least that it is at the same grade of complexity (for an example of the case for a placozoan affinity, see here, for insight into just how difficult it has been to classify Dickinsonia, see here). A recent study into the development of Dickinsonia claims to provide strong evidence that it is indeed an animal, though without assigning it to any particular group. It effectively states that Dickinsonia is an animal, so let’s put aside the claims that it is not and focus on where it fits on the animal evolutionary tree. See for yourself, here.

This gained a lot of press coverage back in September, though one, in particular, stood out to me. The Week decided to go with the brilliant headline “550-million-year-old thingamajig determined to actually be an animal”. I honestly can’t express how much I love that Dickinsonia has been labelled a “thingamajig” as it is perfect. Dickinsonia is head-scratchingly confusing, it is rightly considered to be a Rorschach Test for palaeontologists, it is, quite simply, a baffling thingamajig. It’s just a shame that the term has no taxonomic value.

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Misquoting Darwin – mimicry is common

Recently, I had a university assignment which involved providing a method for delivering science. I had chosen the theory of evolution as the science I wished to communicate, which I was aiming to help GCSE biology students learn (16-year-olds, pretty much). It covered a number of topics which are linked to evolution and, for the adaptation section, I decided to add a well-known quotation from Charles Darwin. Variations are easily found in meme form:

I found this particular iteration here: https://www.tes.com/lessons/IUuOv0S0tZBD7Q/charles-darwin

To my surprise, Darwin never actually said these words. Over the years, I’ve come across all sorts of quotations misattributed to Darwin and quotations taken massively out of context, and have undoubtedly typed the words “Darwin never actually said that” enough times to consider it some sort of punishment. Yet there I was, about to pass on an apocryphal quotation to impressionable minds.

This particular quotation originates from a Professor of Management and Marketing, Leon Megginson, in 1963, which has since taken on its own life (you can read more about this specific quotation here, and about some other misquotations here). Attributing a quotation to Charles Darwin gives it a certain credibility when it comes to anything evolution-related, making mimicry a common result.

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Some interesting science communication observations

During a recent university assignment (not assessed, thankfully), we had to look at motivations for science consumption by online users. Amongst the myriad reasons we explored, one, in particular, stood out – entertainment. This was all a very brief exercise, so our conclusions were tentative, but it seemed to us that science communication reaches a wider audience when it is entertaining, possibly in a short format such as an image, meme, or video lasting only a few minutes.

I had a look at the top science pages on Facebook as a starting point. Unsurprisingly, I Fucking Love Science was by far the most popular site, boasting 25.8 million likes (amongst my approximately 1,000 friends on Facebook, 133 like IFLS). It’s a page which began life mostly sharing memes and interesting nuggets about science, a format which saw it gaining thousands of followers per day.

From the IFLS Facebook page.

It would be careless to simply assume that the popularity of IFLS is due to a simple, superficial appeal, which is undoubtedly not its entire attraction as they do offer more in-depth looks at science (albeit often problematic, but that’s for another time). What stood out whilst looking at some of the most popular science pages on Facebook was a contrast between two of the BBC pages. BBC Science News has a mere 545 thousand likes (only four amongst my friends) whereas BBC Earth has been liked by almost 7.3 million people (34 from my friends list). There is a lot of content overlap between the two pages, though I would suggest that the BBC Science News page shares more links, whereas BBC Earth has a lot of videos and images, particularly of one of the most appealing subjects to science laymen (wildlife is probably just beaten by space, with dinosaurs chasing the two of them). It might be the case that BBC Earth is listed as a TV channel which somehow broadens its readership (is there a medium-specific term I should be using?), whereas BBC Science News is listed as a news and media website, however, I am leaning towards the likelihood that its content drives its appeal.

As said above, this is a tentative conclusion and it is one which I intend to investigate further. Looking at one social media platform in a very simple way is not conclusive enough, but I do consider it to be an interesting observation. Plus, it allows me to share this image from Cyanide and Happiness: 

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