Monday, 18 April 2016

Open Letter to the Natural Environment Research Council

What's in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Or would it..?

There's been a fair bit of noise of late about the decision to start an online poll regarding the naming of a new £200m research vessel, resulting in what has been deemed a 'silly' suggestion topping the poll at 124,109 votes, almost 90,000 votes ahead of the nearest competitor. That name, in case you've been perfecting your ostrich impersonation for the last month, is Boaty McBoatface. The person who came up with this suggestion, former BBC presenter James Hand, has since apologised (Ed: James has been in touch, and wanted to make it clear that his apology was for causing the crashing of the website).

Here, I want to make a serious case for actually running with the winner.

Firstly, while some might think that this name is somewhat frivolous, there is plenty of precedent for silly nomenclature in science. Some nice examples from various disciplines.

Abra cadabra, a species of clam.
Agra vation, a carabid beetle species.
Heerz lukenatcha, a braconid wasp.

There are many more examples and, indeed, Linnaean taxonomy is riddled with humorous and/or sexually suggestive names. An entomologist friend of mine once spent several hours on a moth-trapping session regaling all present (yours truly included) with vast swathes of such instances easily recalled from his encyclopaedic knowledge of taxonomic nomenclature.

Moving on, genetics:
SHH, a gene (and related protein) that controls, among other things, digit development in limb tissues. SHH stands for Sonic Hedgehog.

Pikachurin, a protein involved in photoreceptor synapse interactions, named after Pikachu, a Pokémon character.

Pokémon, an oncogenic (cancer-causing) gene, later renamed Zbtb7 after Nintendo threatened the naming team's employers with legal action because of the negative association with cancer.

And we're not limited to biology either, chemists have a nice selection, too:

Arsole, a ring-shaped molecule (actually, a group of molecules; check out Paul May's excellent Molecules with Silly or Unusual Names).

Buckminster Fullerene, a molecule named after architect Buckminster Fuller - more of an homage than a joke, but wait for it - when British chemist Harry Kroto was inspired by the work of Fuller to work out how 60 carbon atoms could be arranged in a perfectly symmetrical fashion. That was only the beginning, though; what proceeded from that was an entire group of symmetrical molecules with names like bunnyballs, fuzzyballs, buckeyonions, etc.

What about physicists? Surely they're more serious?

We have, from the various branches of physics, this nice little sample set:

The 'No-Hair' theorem, a moniker derived from John Wheeler's summation of the theorem as 'black holes have no hair', meaning that their boundaries are smooth (barring quantum effects).

Naked singularities and the cosmic censorship hypothesis (famously the subject of a bet between physicists Stephen Hawking and Kip Thorne, the forfeiture of which would result in the loser clothing the winner's nudity with a suitable concessionary missive (conceded by Hawking in 1997 on a technicality).

The gluon, boson of the strong nuclear force, because it glues the particles together.

P-branes (pea-branes, just in case anybody missed it), the extension of the strings in M-Ttheory to any number of dimensions, the number denoted by the variable p, and brane being an elision of 'membrane'.

Jocelyn Bell's discovery of the first pulsar. Because the signal was so regular, it was thought that it must have an intelligent origin (film buffs will remember Courtney B. Vance as the sonar operator in The Hunt For Red October, noting a regularity and stating 'Here it is at 10x speed, now that's gotta be man-made'). She half-jokingly called the source LGM-1, LGM standing for 'little green men' (this was the '60s, after all). BTW, it's a travesty that the Nobel committe hasn't yet rectified their prejudice-oriented oversight (to be charitable) in their failure to reward one of the great pioneers of astrophysics with her just deserts.
I could extend this list almost indefinitely if it added anything to the immediate point I'm making, or any of the points I'm slowly wending toward, and that's even before we get to such things as Hawking saying down the phone 'nee-ner, nee-ner' to Sheldon Cooper, or disparaging Newton for citing his C.V. in the presence of a hologrammatical instantiation of Newton himself along with one of Einstein, with Lieutenant Commander Data appearing in person. These two appearances will have import later.

There are two major problems in science beyond the construction of better and more accurate models, and they are these:

Science in the 21st century can be expensive. Gone are the days when one (or many) could reasonably expect to push the envelope in fundamental physics, for example, with equipment that could be constructed from bits you could buy at B&Q and would fit on your desktop. Most of the really interesting science at this level has already been done, and we need bigger, better, more sophisticated and more complex machines to probe deeper and further. Even smaller experiments these days rely on principles whose discoveries themselves were predicated on the existence of the larger machines. MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), for example, and its most sophisticated progeny, fMRI (functional MRI), as well as PET scans (positron emission tomography) are predicated on principles validated in large-scale, expensive experiments.

The huge problem with all of this, especially when it comes to big, expensive science, is government/public engagement. We make the greatest scientific progress when public engagement is high. The examples of this are reasonably obvious, and some of them not only underpin, but define our modern technological world. Without public support, the race to the moon and, as a result, much of our modern technology would be a pipe dream. At the moment, public interest in science is marginally on the increase, due to several high-profile discoveries (and one high-profile flop), but that shouldn't be squandered. The profile of the poll regarding the naming of this vessel will already increase interest in it, but the profile of the vessel itself and the importance of its research can still be raised, not least by actually naming the vessel RRS Boaty McBoatface, and capitalising on the public interest generated by the news cycle immediately following the announcement by providing regular updates on the research being conducted, and what it can tell us. I know that the live data streams from CERN are a big hit, for instance.

I note that, as part of NERC's Royal Charter, it is committed to 'generate public awareness, communicate research outcomes, encourage public engagement and dialogue, disseminate knowledge and provide advice in relation to those activities'. Indeed, the Council's mission statement contains the following:

As the UK's leading public funder of environmental science NERC is committed to communicating its work as widely as possible, to inform and enthuse non-scientific audiences about environmental science and to demonstrate the economic and societal benefits that science brings.

This commitment is enshrined in our Royal Charter which states our obligation to generate public awareness, communicate research outcomes, encourage public engagement and dialogue, disseminate knowledge and provide advice in relation to our activities. Public engagement is also a grant condition for grant holders, as stated in section GC20 of the NERC research grants and fellowships handbook.
I suspect, in fact, that the idea to run this as a public poll in the first place stemmed from that portion of the NERC's mission statement.

The second issue is a related one, but deals with the engagement of a very specific group of people essential to the long-term future of STEM subjects and scientific progress; children and young people.

I know, and have known, a lot of science educators and, indeed, educators across the spectrum. I've also spent some time as an educator myself, and even an armchair science educator, and I'm aware that it can be difficult to pique interest in some areas. For myself, I first became interested in science by one of the examples above, namely Jocelyn Bell's discovery of pulsars, largely because of the association with aliens (who doesn't like the idea of aliens?) Professor Brian Cox relates how he first became interested in science after watching the moon-landing on television. How many children and young people could be turned onto environmental science by no other means than naming a ship? Indeed, I'm strongly considering a series of children's books entitled The Adventures of Boaty McBoatface, aimed at explaining environmental science to children (though it occurs to me that the NERC could just as easily run this as a blog on its website aimed at children and young people and containing regular updates on the research conducted by this vessel).

What the NERC has here is a unique opportunity to raise the profile of its research and to properly engage the public in all age groups. In today's climate (pardon the pun), anything that can raise awareness of the issues faced by our ignorance of how our environment works and is threatened can only be a good thing.

In summary, while the suggestion was a silly one, it actually represents a somewhat serendipitous chance to further the mission of the Council. Should the NERC not seize this opportunity, it will be doing itself, and the public at large, a serious disservice. I strongly urge the NERC to honour the poll and name the vessel RRS Boaty McBoatface.

Best regards,

Tony Murphy
Armchair didact and science blogger.

P.S. I recommend to anybody reading this to do further research on any of the areas I've touched on in this epistle, as some of what I've given as examples of frivolity in science have genuinely fascinating science stories behind them.

Edit: I'd actually meant to include in the above some comments about various great educators of science, e.g. Richard Feynman, who talked about having 'an almost child-like sense of wonder', or some variation thereof. Sometimes, science is taken too seriously, and a little levity wouldn't go amiss.