Tag: ESOF16

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.

Awkwardness, the bugs in your body and Twinkling satellites: ESOF16 Day 2

The second day of a conference is when things start to get awkward.

On the first day, with your misguided sense of exuberance and nervous energy, you try to meet everyone. You insert your ready-to-be-shaken hand into circles of people like a knife in a birthday cake. (This is also the day when most people contract that strange foreign illness they invariably take home and share with their nearest and dearest.)

By day two, the weariness has started to settle behind your eyes, your jaded opinions of the world have returned, and you do not remember a single name of the dozens upon dozens of people you threw yourself at the day before.

Enough time has also passed – and accumulated shared experience as you continue bump into each other – that you’re too embarrassed to say you don’t know their name. You play the dangerous game of trying to force an encounter between two people whose names you don’t know in the hope that they’ll introduce themselves.

What this invariably means is that, if you’re me, you start to avoid people in order to circumvent almost-certain social awkwardness. The good news is that, if this happens at a science conference, there’s great research to hear about instead.

For example, did you know that 1.5kg of your body mass is bacteria? This “poorly understood micro-ecosystem in our bodies is fundamentally important in almost every aspect of our physiology”, said Eran Elinav, of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. “Almost any large-scale multi-factoral disease has been linked to our microbiome.”

This is particularly true for obesity, a global pandemic that grew slowly in front of our eyes over the last century. In 2014, according to World Health Organisation figures, there were 1.9-billion overweight adults on the planet, and 600-million of those were obese. Obesity has also been linked to many other diseases, including diabetes, heart disease and a number of cancers.

Despite knowing the extent of the problems, it is incredibly difficult to lose weight for many, many, many reasons.

Elinav pointed to the fact that many of our diets are based on the idea of nutritional grading systems (calories, glycemic index (GI)), and then diets are contructed around these systems. GI is a measure of the effect foods have on the amount of sugar in your food. You can read more about it here. The long and the short of it, according to traditional wisdom: high GI = bad (because the food you eat is converted quickly to glucose, your blood turns into (figurative) syrup and it isn’t good for you). Low GI = good (because then your food is absorbed slowly over time, releasing glucose in manageable doses).***

And here was the first shock to my system (it did what the bad conference coffee had failed to achieve): by testing of thousands of people, Elinav found that the GI system held true for the average, it was not true for the individual.

Upon eating a certain food and then being monitored: “Some [people] spike to near diabetic levels, others don’t,” Elinav said. But statistics give us the average, which smooths out these extremes.

But how does that links to micro-organisms in our gut? “The microbiome was the biggest feature to determine the body’s response to food,” he said.

“It makes no sense [to use this index] because each of us has a different response to food. In our opinion, based on these results, a one-size fits all diet cannot be effective.”

Since our genetics and microbiomes are all different, that makes sense, neh? That said, there are some thing all diets agree on: moderate exercise, less sugar, smaller portions.

Unfortunately, “moderation” and “balance” are seldom the words people want to hear when it comes to a silver bullet for a pandemic.

There is something that science funders like to hear, though, and that is “small” and “cheap”. And that is what the Twinkle Space Mission plans to offer: a small, low-cost satellite, which aims to analyse planets when it is launched into low-earth orbit in 2018.

“There are no dedicated satellites analysing the planets we already know about, Twinkle project manager Marcell Tessenyi said. “Twinkle will be focusing on that.”

Just over two decades ago, we thought that the sun’s planets were unique, but the Kepler mission dashed our egocentricity. These days, we’re finding exoplanets at an alarming rate and they are fulfilling all of feverish fictional dream and wishes: a planet of diamond, possibly habitable ones, even a giant one with three orbiting suns.

And Twinkle wants to do all of its space-based planet gazing for about $65-million. (In the space world, this is a bargain.)

The UK’s Twinkle mission caught my attention because, aside from the fantastic and endearing name, it is “not pushing scientific capabilities”, Tessenyi said.

It feels as though everyone is trying to “push the boundaries” these days: the biggest, the smallest, the fastest, the whatever-est, how far we can see, how small we can cut. While this technological drive is great, there is a lot of important and exciting science to be done with the technology we already have. I mean, that’s why we developed it, isn’t it?



*** I fact-checked this with the fantastic Anina Mumm from SciBraai and she says it would be better to say it like this:


GI is a measure of how quickly the sugars in foods are absorbed into your bloodstream. You can read more about it here.

High GI foods can be bad because the sugars are so simple that they are absorbed into your bloodstream very quickly i.e. they spike your blood sugar, which can contribute to quicker fat storage if you don’t need all of the energy contained in the sugar right away. Spikes also lead to crashes in blood sugars soon after eating, which causes cravings for more sugar, leading to a cycle that fuels obesity. Over the long term, high blood sugars put strain on the body’s insulin response, which may lead to type 2 diabetes.

Low GI foods are considered healthier because the sugars therein are complex and take longer to break down, thus getting absorbed into your bloodstream slower and providing sustained energy over a longer time rather than in one quick burst – that’s the “fuller for longer” idea.


The fine print: I am at ESOF16 thanks to a Nature Travel Grant, and my accommodation is covered by the SKA Organisation.

Manchester, robot cars and the apocalypse: ESOF16, Day 1

There’s a bright-eyed eagerness to the first day of a conference. People bustle from session to session, take notes while speakers talk, and are prepared to wait their turn in the line for coffee.

It won’t last.

In two short days, the polite veneer rubs off. The coffee queue will become a mosh pit, all elbows and crazy-eyed feral grins. Session attendance begins to drop in favour of ‘business meetings’ (which could be naps, catching up on the work you’ve been missing, or tending to a coffee-related injury), and rather than meticulous note-taking, we’re try to make a mental note of the speaker’s name.

But on day one of the EuroScience Open Forum, everyone was still putting their best foot forward, including the bustling city of Manchester around them. The sun even shone for about 10 minutes.

Now, let’s be honest, having a European science conference in a British city a month after the United Kingdom with some colourful language and rhetoric decided to quit the European Union was a bit /cough/ awkward. But, in suitably British fashion, everyone adorned the proverbial stiff upper lip and got on with it.

“At its core, ESOF is a European event, and Manchester and the university will remain irrevocably part of Europe,” Prof Dame Nancy Rothwell, Manchester University vice-chancellor, told the opening ceremony on Sunday night. It must be said, though, the unspoken sentiment hanging over the room like a cloud was that 52% of UK voters did not agree with her.

That cloud could, of course, been the result of the smoke machine that kept the event atmospheric, complemented by a riff from FatBoy Slim (something I don’t think I’ve ever heard at a event in my years as a science journalist).

And then there was the science.

Let’s start with the bad news: pandemics are getting more frequent and they are getting more severe. That is not fear mongering, that’s the consensus of the panel “The next plague: preparing for global pandemics”, bringing together experts from industry, the media and government.

As multi-awarding winning writer Laurie Grant said: “We’re just going to have a very calm, laid back discussion about the apocalypse.”

Zika, Ebola, SARS – we are seeing an uptick in mass disease outbreaks, for – in retrospect – obvious reasons: people are moving to live in cities which are beginning to burst at the seams, they travel to other cities more often and as the world’s population grows we’re encroaching into more natural wilderness and disrupting natural ecosystems – urbanisation, globalisation and, er, destroying habitats-isation. So, we know this is coming: what do we do?

Well, it’s complicated. No one – government, industry, NGOS – can to it alone, that’s for sure. There are huge logistical challenges. Who has the money, in advance, to prepare vaccines for a crisis that hasn’t happened? Sir Andrew Witty (from pharmaceutical giant GSK) made an important point: Let’s say there is a vaccine sample, and it’s kept on ice until it’s needed: “Do we even have a billion glass vials” on Earth for when we need to mass produce it?

Paul Stoffels, chief scientific officer for another big industry player Johnson&Johnson, said: “In peace time, we have to prepare for war.” He mentioned a collaboration between government, industry and research institutions to have vaccines/research at the proof of concept stage, so that it is easier to ramp up its development.

But perhaps the most interesting point of this 90-minute panel – the one that will linger in my brain long after I’ve fled the shores of Old Blighty – arose from presenter James Gallagher’s question: “Are we fixating on vaccines, where there should be other solutions?”

The first ebola dead was a boy just after Christmas 2013, Garret answered. It took “nine months of death and horror before there was even a state of emergency”. International resources were deployed from about October 2014, she says. But Liberia’s outbreak had peaked before then, and was on the decline. “Liberia took care of Liberia,” Garret said. “It was social mobilisation on a scale unprecedented for them.” They did that without the latest technology, which only arrived later.

I started with the bad news, but I’ll end with the good: by piecing together the information I’ve gleaned at ESOF16, the robot over lords will allow me to keep doing my job.

Times are tight for people in creative industries aka “creatives” – incidentally, that’s a term I deplore. It sounds as though I shloomph through the world in hemp drawstring pants, while I sip spinach juice from a paper mache champagne flue. Or I’m in a spangly outfit, drinking actual champagne on a yacht. It gives people mixed signals. Neither are true. Someone would have to pay me substantially more if it was.

As I was saying, those creative industries are unlikely to become redundant when the machines take over our jobs.

In the session “Flying cars, quantum computers – where disruptive technology meets regulation”, Manchester University’s Prof Nikolay Mehandjiev said that creative professions were more likely to survive disruptive technologies that many others.

“Data scientists are in demand today, but in time they will be replaced by machines. If I were a taxi driver, I’d be reprofiling today, not waiting for autonomous cars,” he said.

Disruptive technologies “change our society, the way we live, work, entertain ourselves”. Some jobs become redundant. For example, when did you last meet a blacksmith?

Most innovators are told to think about what their audience wants, to model their offering, innovation, hoverboard, whatever, around what people want. That is usually sound advice.

But disruptive technologies actually do the complete opposite: it’s a technology push, not a customer demand. If you had asked people before cars what kind of vehicle they wanted, “they would have asked for faster electric horses”, Mehandjiev said.

When asked who in the audience wanted autonomous cars on the roads, it was a complete shock – a complete shock, I tell you – when everyone raised a hand.

It’s easier to regulate when there’s consensus, said Mairead McGuinness, vice-president of the European Union. But when the technology is controversial, well, that’s a whole other sword fight.

“In this world, there’s little space for the centre,” she said. “People take polarised views. We try to find a middle ground and get consensus on the new technology… if it’s controversial that’s where the real problems lie, it’s difficult to regulate technology development with a controversial spin.”

Unfortunately, the latest technologies – the ones most likely to disrupt societies and change lives – are the controversial: Crisper-Cas9, synthetic biology and gene editing; big data and privacy; and artificial intelligence and the upcoming robot invasion.

Science and Technology Prof Sheila Jasanoff made a very important point – although, for the sake of journalistic ethics, it is my solemn duty to inform you that she said it at the opening ceremony and was not actually in the room during this regulation discussion. But what she said has bearing:

These days we say “everything is changing”. “But perhaps we don’t want everything to change. Inequality, yes. But collaboration? Compassion? No.”


The fine print: I am at ESOF16 thanks to a Nature Travel Grant, and my accommodation is covered by the SKA Organisation.