Sunday, 2 April 2017

Here's the science bit.

Another great evening in The Bell with the London Fortean Society and editor-at-large of the Londonist Matt Brown. Matt's an amiable guy who used to be an actual proper scientist so he knows what he's talking about even if, in absent minded professor style, he sometimes takes a while to remember what it is.

That only added charm to a fascinating and instructive evening. Unlike other Fortean talks Matt's 'Everything You Know About Science Is Wrong' put aside a narrative structure and simply focused on a quickfire debunking of a few, quite a few, popular science myths. Matt knew he was being pedantic and nit-picking with a lot of this stuff and he made no excuses for it. He was doing it for fun though. Not some kind of "I think you'll find" approach like that patronising friend most of us have who are more than happy to highlight the gaps in our knowledge and delight in demonstrating their intellectual superiority.

Matt wore his intelligence and knowledge much more lightly than that even if he couldn't help, at times, making sport of it. A favourite ruse of his was to refer to the large clock in Westminster as Big Ben. Normally within seconds someone will be on his site to exclaim "I think you'll find Big Ben is the name of the bell and what you're referring to is St.Stephen's Tower". Except this received wisdom is untrue. The tower is the Elizabeth Tower and Big Ben is merely one of several bells that peal out across the Thames.

This is in Everything You Know About London Is Wrong book. One he enjoyed so much he followed it up with the science one. He took to task the myth of the right brain/left brain, confirmed you absolutely couldn't see the Great Wall of China from space, and gave Rosalind Franklin her rightful place alongside Crick and Watson regarding her research into DNA.

Aviation history appears to be riddled with myths. The Montgolfier brothers weren't the first up in a hot air balloon. They invented them but sent someone else up as they'd promised their mum they wouldn't place themselves in peril. Neither were the Wright brothers the first to seemingly defy gravity and take a machine heavier than air into the sky.

That was Sir George Cayley, a remarkable engineer, and Whig MP, from Scarborough, who, as well as flying around in gliders in the 1850s, invented both the seatbelt and the spoked wheel. Show off!

I felt Matt could've cut Yuri Gagarin some slack but even the cosmonaut came in for a kicking. Of a very jovial nature. Tortoises beat him into space (they'd sent a hare first but so far ahead was he he stopped for a rest, nodded off, and was pipped by the slowcoach reptile) and Yuri didn't even complete a full orbit of the Earth.

Long admired mountains suffered the same downfall as long admired men. Yeah, Everest is the tallest mountain on Earth if you measure from the ground but what if you start in the ocean? Then Hawaii's Mauna Kea is bigger. Other planets too boast higher peaks. Famously the volcano Olympus Mons on Mars but even that's dwarfed by the asteroid Rheasilvia.

There was some more confusing stuff about epigenetics and string theory. Matt posited that we may not be who we think are. Leaving aside the 50% of us that is water and the gradual renewal and ongoing replacement of our organs (I like to call this Trigger's Broom) a lot of our DNA gets swapped in the womb with our mother's and our sibling's. This recently discovered flux in our make up has caused some scientists to ask if this makes the offsprings of alcoholics or smokers more likely to become addicts themselves as the parent's DNA adapts to cope with the addiction and is then passed on to the child. The science isn't decisive but that's the nature of science. Things don't stay the same. They develop with new learning and discoveries. That's why it beats religion every time.

String theory is so complicated it's said anyone who claims to understand it must be lying. Some definitions claim for it to work it must involve 10, 11, or even 26 dimensions. Matt's attempt to simplify it was questioned by audience members and a heated debate was had. Later there were heated debates about tesseracts and gonorrhea. It was that kind of evening. The kind I like.

On the subject of heating water doesn't usually boil at 100 degrees. It's around there but specifics depend on location and conditions. Paris is your best bet to hit the century on the head as that's where they did the tests. Up mountains, on the poles, or in space results will be very different indeed.

Matt was asked if the rise of stupidity, fake news, soundbites, and meme culture would make scientific knowledge, and pedantry, obsolote. If we were hurtling towards a new dark age essentially. But he remained positive that the pendulum would swing back to facts and experts soon enough. I share his hope but it's up to us to do our own fact checking from time to time if we want this to happen - and this was just such an exercise for me.

So, even though I didn't know that much about science in the first place, it turned out much of what I did know was wrong. On top of that I learnt a few facts to either bore or impress people with in pubs in the future. Matt Brown impressed, rather than bored, me.

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