Category Archives: science

Blindly fighting on

I had an interesting one during the week when someone made an assertion about the place I came from and I pointed out – politely – that they were wrong. I added I was from there.

My normal reaction when I’m the person making an assertion about Italy, and an Italian says “well actually…” is to assume I might be wrong. What seems to be increasingly evident is that most people assume they have nothing left to learn. The response I got was “this is a joke right, because based on other information I have which is entirely irrelevant and inadequate to the debate this is completely wrong, include major league misunderstanding of language”.

The social media scene in Ireland was upended by an argument on Twitter, primarily, about comments which Rosanna Davison may or may not have made regarding gluten and a number of illnesses. In one respect, it was, in an era of celebrity trumping all, gratifying to see a significant number of people pointing out that she was wrong.

But…it doesn’t really end there. At least one commentator took the view “so what if she said something stupid

Reaction is kind of ridiculous though. Who cares what she says about it, really

and at least one commentator suggested that this was pretty much bullying.

Remember a real person reads all those tweets

So it’s bullying to point out someone who is not a qualified doctor, who talks about her “qualification in nutritional therapy” is making assertions, in the field of health, which are wrong. And Harbison worries about Rosanna. What about all the people who a) are coeliac and know a whole pile more about it that she appears to and b) all the people with rheumatoid arthritis who really don’t need this misinformation becoming widespread. If nothing else, people start having to constantly field well meaning ignorance of the lines “you should…” and “why don’t you try this I read it in the Sindo once, you know Rosanna Davison, she has some kind of qualification in nutrition, so she knows what she is talking about….”

This is a sad state of affairs. Much of the commentary – from people who were deeply angry with her – was still unfailingly clear and polite. It is not bullying to point out someone is wrong. Davison’s response was to block commentary on twitter from experts in the field. This is the classic action of someone who doesn’t want to learn they are wrong.

And it is extremely important to point out when someone says something wrong, and potentially damaging in the field of health because it goes to the heart of keeping people healthy.

So an argument around a piece of history in one small town might be unimportant but there are subjects where it is not so unimportant.

At no point in their lives does anybody know everything about everything. It is entirely possible that one of the most useful skills we could pass on to people is learning to recognise when a) they are wrong and b) have something to learn from others.

In the meantime, XKCD will continue to provide one of the most accurate reflections of interactive discussions online today.

Duty Calls by the inimitable Randall Munro

In the meantime it’s worth nothing that Davison has made a statement suggesting the comments disputed are not in her book, she doesn’t really believe them and she has been misquoted.

On a wider note, I wonder how much the need our media has to sell newspapers has allowed themselves to abdicate their responsibility in terms of information gatekeeping. Put simply while it’s hard to prevent misinformation getting to the web courtesy of the democratisation of access to broadcast, one of the selling points of the newspapers was, in theory, that they were supposed to be better than that. But that is a debate for another day.

Book review: Eruptions that Shook the World – Clive Oppenheimer

I found this book fascinating.

Oppenheimer draws together strands from geology, history, archaeology and the current world to assess the impact of volcanic eruptions, the direct consequences, the indirect consequences. He provides an indepth technical understanding of volcanoes and their behaviour, the terminology used by experts in the field. He looks at a number of cataclysmic eruptions in history and highlights how they changed humanity’s world and humanity’s view of the world.


Yes, I watched Felix Baumgartner

How could I not?

Live on the internet? 24 miles up in the sky, about to jump? 8 million people watching? I’m stunned he made it – you’d like to hope they were reasonably sure he would on account of not trying if the odds were seriously against it. Not that there are any guarantees around exploration.

My generation is a touch hard done by. I can watch the ISS passing over my head several times a year at the moment. Someone sends me a notice via twitter to let me know in advance (it’s usually cloudy). The first day I saw it is the first and only time I saw a space shuttle passing overhead as well. Fantastic. The ¬†moon landing was before I was borne. I’ve lived through consolidation work on the space exploration front. I get to see pictures from Mars on a regular basis and Voyager II is hooked up to send a tweet every day. I read about the Voyager probes in a Youngline annual.

But….something huge, something to grab the imagination. Something to grab the Boldly Going Where No Man’s Gone Before thread of life….Frankly, it takes someone to go down to the bottom of the Mariana trench. We have no vision for the future of space travel for humans, it seems to me.

Well maybe they do in China but haven’t told us yet. Hard to tell.

So yeah, Felix Baumgartner. 39 km in a balloon, direction up, then jump. Of course, a few checklists in the middle, couple of years building stuff but…somewhere along the line the thought of I want to do this and how do I do it, what are the barriers and how do I overcome them. As simple as that.

Someone give NASA and ESA the money and the momentum to plan manned trips to Mars. Give us hope in the future and recognition of the abilities of humankind to have visions and act on them.

Culture Night – Dunsink Observatory

I’m never really quite prepared for Culture Night – I love the whole idea of it but there seems to be an overwhelming amount of stuff to do so I fear to tread anywhere near Dublin City Centre. I found out by accident yesterday, however, that Dunsink Observatory were doing a few bits and pieces so I ventured out there.

I met a friend there too, family in tow and the overwhelming assessment was that this was fantastic.

Dunsink Observatory is in the grounds of what was William Rowan Hamilton’s house. Its South Telescope is an example of a Grubbs telescope and when your local politician is on to you about knowledge economies, know that in the early 20th century, the world’s leading manufacturer of telescopes was based in Dublin. We have powered the science of the world. In fact, we also had the biggest telescope in the world for a while over in Birr but that’s a different story.

Anyway, Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies who own the site were on hand with someone giving a talk about the telescope every 30 minutes, with someone on hand to talk about ICHEC’s work with heavy duty dataprocessing and demonstrating their 3D visualising software. I was absolutely mesmerised by this and took information home because I want to know more. There were people pointing telescopes up and the sky and when I left, one of the telescope operators was about to start looking for what my memory tells me was the Crab Nebula.

The sky was mostly very clear.

The staff were overwhelmed by the turn out – it seems to have far exceeded their expectations and there were a lot of children there which I think is some evidence that here, at least, interest is turning in the direction of science and what it can do for the world. Things like this are inspiring – I know I was fascinated by the Birr telescope when I was a teenager, that here was something that we were best at in the world. That there are no limits.

According to Dunsink’s website, they run public evenings from the observatory a couple of times a week during the winter. My friend and I are definitely, definitely up for that this winter.


AND…dammit…I left before the meteor shower. That’s a pity. Still….next time.