Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Evolution: the comedy puppet show

Anyone with an interest in evolution, puppets and edgy comedy should get down to the Soho Theatre in London in June, where Nina Conti will be explaining evolutionary theory with the help of her foul-mouthed monkey side-kick.

Not too sure about the scientific content, but it certainly sounds like a different addition on the Darwin celebrations this year.

Here's the blurb from the Soho Theatre website:
On the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin's Origin of the Species, Nina Conti and 'the missing link', her foul-mouthed talking monkey, attempt to explain evolutionary theory. But with schizophrenia at close range, and with Monkey determined to sabotage her scientific credentials, she ends up unveiling far more than the Mysteries of Evolution... Thankfully, in the interest of entertainment, they've included songs, jokes and superfluous nudity. Winner of the Prestigious Barry Award at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival 2008.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Darwin and his emotions

Amongst all the talk of evolution and this year’s anniversary of On the Origin of the Species, it is easy to forget Darwin's contributions to other fields of science.

This week, the great man’s contribution to psychology and neuroscience was highlighted at a discussion meeting at the Royal Society in London, and in a feature article published in Wellcome History.

Dr Paul Ekman from the University of California, San Francisco, opened the discussion meeting on ‘The Computation of Emotions in Man and Machines’ with a presentation on Darwin’s forecasts about facial expressions, as outlined in his 1872 book, The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals.

It was perhaps the first scientific book to make extensive use of photographs. Darwin focused on the face, rightly recognising it as one of the richest sources of emotional information a scientist can study. And it paid off. Ekman remarked how Darwin’s forecasts about the nature of facial expression of emotion, and emotion itself, were nearly all correct.

There is increasing evidence from brain research to support Darwin’s view that we consider each emotion as a separate, discrete entity. He also proposed, rightly, that there are a ‘universals’ in facial expression of emotions that all humans use. And he recognised that emotions are not unique to humans, making him something of a hero of the animal rights movement of the time.

The blush, however, was one emotion that Darwin mused may be exclusive to humans. He dedicated a whole chapter of The Expression of Emotion to the emotion, wondering whether it occurs in all human groups and in different species.

In Wellcome History, Professor Ray Crozier writes, “His subsequent research on blushing exemplifies the relentless collection of evidence that characterised his scientific work, drawing upon an extensive network of correspondents… to establish whether people of all skin colours blush and whether young children do so, and… whether the blind and ‘idiots’ do.”

Darwin thought the blush emphasised self-attention (“it is the thinking of what others think of us which excites a blush”). He related it to shyness, shame and modesty, all of which involve self-attention, but not necessarily a lack of moral sense, as other scientists argued.

Modern research has built on this. Psychologists, for instance, have found that people tend to judge an individual less negatively if a blush accompanies some wrongdoing (a finding which was also highlighted at the Royal Society meeting).

As Crozier puts it, Darwin “anticipated contemporary theorising” on the blush, which relate to self-consciousness and psychological states, such as embarrassment, that involve our concern with how we appear to others.

“Darwin brought to many scientific fields eagerness to ask difficult questions and the resilience to sustain empirical projects lasting for years. Even though technical resources necessary for research were not yet in place… his observations have stood the test of time.”

Image: Chimpanzee looking tired and sulky. Drawn from life by Mr. Wood. From The expression of the emotions in man and animals
Credit: Wellcome Library, London

Friday, 17 April 2009

The Routes of success

Routes, the cross-platform game and mini-series developed by Channel 4 in partnership with the Wellcome Trust, proved a big hit with its target audience of UK teenagers, particularly girls. Figures released by Channel 4 Education show the Routes website was visited by some 150,000 people, with 44 per cent of registered players from the UK and some 70 per cent of those girls.

Routes, part of the Trust’s Darwin 200 activities, was launched in January as a new way to engage young people with science, particularly genetics and bioethics. The project ran for eight weeks, spearheaded by a web mini-series following comedian Katherine Ryan on her quest to find out more about her genetic make-up.

Accompanying the episodes were flash games, challenges and web forums. But the centrepiece was an alternate reality story linking characters from the Routes universe with events staged in real life.

At the launch of the project, it was announced that the Routes scientific adviser had been found dead, and this kicked off a murder mystery for players to solve. As Routes progressed, players joined forces to find clues across the web. One player hit the streets of Plymouth with flyers, while others created blogs, went to in-game lectures and gigs, created Facebook groups and even business cards. The culmination of the story saw six players, including a young science teacher, break into a fake lab to solve the case.

The Routes video and games were featured on Youube, Bebo, MSN, Miniclip, Fingertime, and E4, and spread virally to Facebook, Twitter, Flash Arcade, Gameslist, The Awesomer, and Gamegirly.

The flash games, introducing players to the principles of evolution, virology, DNA and genetics, were played over 3.5 million times. Over 50,000 votes were cast in the image challenges, and thousands of photos uploaded to the main Routes website as players clocked up points and achievements in a competition to win one of nine Playstation 3 consoles.

The success of Routes illustrates how games and cross platform projects can help reach a teenage audience and address the issues they face in a rapidly changing world.

“Routes was the best way we could attract a young, technically-savvy audience who wouldn't normally pay any attention to information about Darwin and genetic science,” said Dr Daniel Glaser, Head of Special Projects at the Wellcome Trust.

“By giving young people something that they could get deeply involved in – to the extent of coming along to real-life events and even joining in the action of the story – Routes hooked their interest in the relevance to their own lives of genetics and genomics.”

Although the project has now finished it’s run, you can still access all the web episodes, games and other material at www.routesgame.com.

UPDATE: The Guardian has an interview with the Routes alternate-reality game developer, which explains the concept pretty well.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Darwin sparks creationism row in Turkey

Last month, the clash between evolution and creationism hit the front-pages of Turkey, with Darwin at the centre of the storm.

Popular science magazine, Bilim ve Teknik (Science and Technology) removed its Editor, Çiğdem Atakuman, over a decision to put Darwin on the cover. The magazine is published by the Turkish national science council TUBITAK.

According to New Scientist, Atakuman had planned a celebratory cover and feature article to coincide with the Darwin200 activities happening around the world. But just before it went to press Atakuman was removed from her post, the feature withdrawn and the Darwin cover replaced with one on global warming.

According to Turkish newspaper Milliyet (quoted in Nature), the editorial changes were ordered by TÜBİTAK's vice-president, Ömer Cebeci, who claimed Atakuman had secretly changed previously agreed content.

The move caused outrage in Turkey’s scientific circles. Nature reported that Üniversite Konseyleri Derneği (the Association of University Councils), an academic society representing young researchers, had called for Cebeci's resignation. A group of university professors planned to read a letter of protest inside TÜBİTAK's headquarters on 11 March. And commenters on the New Scientist article reported further demonstrations on 13 March.

Intense media coverage followed. With the country preparing for municipal elections on 29 March, evolution became a hot topic on the political agenda.

By 18 March, in the face of increasing public pressure, TÜBİTAK reversed the decision, reinstating Atakuman as Editor, and issuing a statement confirming its commitment to science and scientific literacy in Turkey.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Launching the Great Plant Hunt

One of the major Wellcome Trust projects for Darwin200 (besides the Tree of Life of course) has been our education initiatives, The Great Plant Hunt and Survival Rivals.

Last month saw the official launch event take place at St. Jude’s CE Primary School in Lambeth, South London. Sir David Attenborough (you may remember him from such documentaries as, The Tree of Life) helped us present the school with the first of our Great Plant Hunt treasure chests, containing exciting classroom and outdoor assignments for pupils of each year group to carry out.

Here’s a video of the event:

The Wellcome Trust is aiming to provide every school in the country with free science activities inspired by Darwin’s theory of evolution. With different projects for 5- to 19-year-olds, the activities show how Darwin’s ideas are vital to our understanding of the natural world.

As Sir David himself said: "I hope having such opportunities to engage with Darwin's story at school will inspire these children to follow in his footsteps and let their curiosity lead them on their own journeys to new discoveries."