Break-ups, body clocks and the mad mob: ESOF16 Day 3

It’s going to be a long time before I sit through another closing ceremony like that of ESOF2016. Usually, in a post chronicling of the day, I’d offer you some form of chronological structure, but this was just too good: tinged with entertainment, nostalgia and a serving a discomfort.

We shuffled into the hall like disinclined cattle – it had been a long day – and there were about three dozen women (and two men) forming a semi-circle on stage. They watched us take our seats, and began to sing. As the choir warbled the first bars of close-harmony a-capella, I flushed with flashbacks from my all-girls school education, where crowd torture by reedy voice was part of the offering. There was the wave of relief when they all hit the same note, the cringe when we weren’t sure if they did, and then we heard what they were singing: modern break-up songs.

A Manchester choir was singing break-up songs to a predominantly European audience, a month after their country decided to leave the European Union. It was priceless, with strains of “Am I going to be an optimist about this?” and “Hello from the other side” filling the red-velvet cushioned hall.

Here’s a short video of it:



I recognise this is funny to me ’cause I’m not British or European, but the world might be a better place if nations serenaded each other more often. It could be a whole new form of diplomacy.

The next EuroScience Open Forum will take place in 2018 in Toulouse, France.

Although not quite as startling as the closing ceremony, this third and final day also offered some surprises, namely the best sessions I’ve been to this ESOF. Some of them got so interesting that I had to stop live tweeting them and take more careful notes for the many stories that the sessions germinated.

It started, rather ironically, with an early morning session about hacking your sleep cycle. Most of the presenters admitted that it was too early for them and there was a certain camaraderie in the fact that all of us, speakers included, were rather disgruntled at being awake.

For many of us, that is completely justified: our body has a certain rhythm (the circadian rhythm) which is unique to each of us. Some people are larks, some people are night owls.

Russell Foster, a professor of circadian neuroscience at Oxford University, says: “Earth’s environment is profoundly different as we rotate on our axis, and our body has adapted to these demands.”

For a long time, it was thought that this natural internal rhythm was regulated by the brain. But researchers have found that every cell in the body – fat, liver, muscle cells, you name it – has the ability to “generate its own master clock”, Foster says. These cells all have a 24-hour cycle of their own, so your body is more of a “circadian network” than a servant of a time-keeping brain.

When this network is out of whack, things start going wrong.

Disrupting the links between different clocks causes metabolic problems, says Dr Akhilesh Reddy from the University of Cambridge.

“Jet lag, for example, as you’re adjusting, you almost become diabetic in the way you handle glucose,” he says. You’re also more susceptible to viruses and more at risk of other diseases, which has serious implications for people who do shift work or are perpetually jetlagged.

While people in those sorts of jobs require more targeted interventions, if you, dear reader, think your sleep rhythm is off kilter, Alexis Webb suggested some cool apps to help you out, such as Night Shift on iOS9 and myCircadianClock.

The session on the “mad mob myth” also offered food for thought – and stories. According to Martyn Amos, of Manchester Metropolitan University, the idea of the “mad mob” is a “zombie idea”: it just won’t die.

The consensus of the panel is that there is actually no such thing as a mad mob, a group of people who through osmosis or “infection” (I’m speaking figuratively) take on a hive brain mentality.

“There’s this idea that everyone is motivated in the same way, trying to achieve the same goals, but there is no proof that this is actually happening,” says Otto Adang, a behavioral specialist with the Police Academy of the Netherlands.

This is an important area of research, particularly for South Africa where we have seen a spike in the number of protests, most of which turn violent.

“People make choices,” he says. “In the old theories, people were being swept away. [But the truth is] consciously or subconsciously, each individual is making choices and not everyone is making the same choice.”

Usually, he says, only a minority is violent – “If it’s 10%, it’s a lot. Usually less.” Others may support the ones who are violent, but they do not actually perpetrate acts of violence.

Adang also distinguishes between the causes of violence in a protest and the escalation of violence. “Friction” – a jostling of agendas and behaviours between police and protests, for example – can trigger violence, or what Adang calls “young male syndrome” in which, well, young men go looking for a fight.

Escalation is usually premised on a perception of getting away with it: if individuals in the protesting crowd think that they can get away with the violence without the risk of consequence, then you’re more likely to see stones being thrown.

But ultimately, it comes down to individual choices.

One comment

  1. Keren says:

    Really enjoyed this Sarah – thanks. Will you post about Kuthu’s parabolic trough power station (molten salt). The price sounds way too high at R12 billion for a 100mw station (interview done by Alex Hogg on news24). Thanks! Keren

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *