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Top Ten Voices of Science (2017)

Apr 10, 2017 in blog

By Sam Young, Matter PR’s Head of Media  |  sam@matterpr.com 

 

We’ve surveyed the International, National, online, trade, and social media coverage so far this year to find out which scientists have been the most influential in the media and who are the leading Voices of Science in 2017.

Emerging trends include topics such as robotics, 5G, and autonomous systems as well as significant coverage on what it means to be human, our place in the universe, and the creation of UKRI.

At the end of Q1, here’s the Top Ten in our 2017 Voices of Science survey – in reverse order.

 

10 – Neil deGrasse Tyson

There are few scientists who can combine expert knowledge, credibility, and a quirky sense of humour like NdGT. Host of StarTalk and Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, he arguably did more in terms of publicity for SpaceX by simply sayingI’m not taking that trip until Elon Musk sends his mother and brings her back alive.”

Neil deGrass Tyson

A hugely popular Twitter user, deGrasse Tyson often makes headlines for his simplistic, witty, and often profound tweets.

However, it is his passion for his subject that has been earning him the headlines this year, when he said he would fight to save science.

 

9 – Lawrence Krauss

A theoretical physicist and cosmologist, Lawrence Krauss is Foundation Professor of the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University. Ever keen to dispel the dogmatic viewpoint religion takes, Krauss believes that people are a ‘cosmic mistake’ and are not the centre of the universe. 2017 has seen Krauss in many of the world’s most influential science media, from Nature, Wired, New Scientist, Scientific American to nationals like the Guardian, and its only April.

 

8 – Andrew Ng

Hailed as one of the world’s most senior AI experts, Andrew Ng founded ‘Google Brain’, a deep learning project developing large scale artificial neural networks.

He commands respect in our 2017 Voices of Science for his ability to make headlines by leaving Chinese internet giant Baidu (knocking off $1.5 billion off the value in the process) and for his bold statements about the future of Artificial Intelligence:

“Just as electricity transformed almost everything 100 years ago, today I actually have a hard time thinking of an industry that I don’t think AI will transform in the next several years.”

7 – Yann LeCun

Head of AI at Facebook, Yann LeCun is a French-born computer scientist who has been making the news this year with his rather refreshing reassurances on our future with machines.

Though many fear the dystopian future depicted in popular fiction such as the Terminator or Blade Runner, LeCun has been reported in several quarters of the world’s media with his beliefs that machines will not take over the world ‘as we have a lot of checks and balances built into society’.

In a move that will calm many who fear the rise of the rise of the machines, LeCun believes that AI is decades away from matching the computational power of the human brain.

 

6 – Professor Robert Winston

As a scientist who is also a writer, a politician and a popular television personality, it is no surprise to see fertility expert Professor Robert Winston in our Top Ten . Whether he is presenting Child of Our Time or conducting fiery experiments with James Corden, Winston remains a very influential voice in Science and the media.

What sets Winston apart from so many eminent scientists on our list is that he engages both on local as well as a national and international level, as you might expect from his many tours of schools the length and breadth of the country.

 

Raymond_Kurzweil5 – Ray Kurzweil

An American author, computer scientist, and inventor, Ray Kurzweil is Director of Engineering at Google. A renowned futurist, Kurzweil has an impressive strike rate for his predict
ions. Of the 147 predictions Kurzweil has made in the last 25 years, he can claim 86 percent success.

High on the Voices of Science list for this year, Kurzweil is original, and at times shocking, but always incredibly newsworthy. Believing that humans and machines will ‘merge’ into a state he calls the ‘singularity’ by 2045 whereby humans with robotic neural implants will be ‘funnier, sexier and smarter’ than humans today.

 

4 – Sir Paul Nurse

Sir Paul NurseA geneticist, Nobel Prize winner, and Director of the Francis Crick Institute, Europe’s biggest biomedical lab, Sir Paul Nurse was installed as Chancellor of Bristol University earlier this year.

With the Francis Crick Institute recently opening the Weston Discovery Lab, a facility for pupils at local schools to visit and take part in a range of experiments, and with Nurse as its director, the former President of the Royal Society is never far from the headlines with his desire to inspire and encourage the next generation of scientists.

 

3 – Lord Martin Rees

Astronomer Royal and former president of the Royal Society, Rees has had science as well as general news editors in a frenzy this month with claims that humanity could be ‘wiped out by robots within a century’, becoming Planet Earth’s dominant species, and alien life being more akin to ‘electronic beings’ having replaced their ‘organic masters’.


2 – Sir Mark Walport

As the UK Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Mark Walport ranks highly in our Voices of Science list. A medical scientist, the former Director of the Welcome Trust, Walport is now Chief Executive of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), a £6 billion umbrella organisation intended to make the UK a world leader in science.

Described by James Wilsdon, professor of research policy at the University of Sheffield, as ‘the ultimate operator in British science’, Walport will be the head of a very influential body when the UKRI takes effect on 1st April 2018. There has been much speculation about how Walport plans to lead UKRI and whether this will cause it to become less independent of Government in its strategic thinking.

 

At the end of the first quarter of this year, Tim Berners-Lee is number one in our 2017 Voices of Science survey.

 

1 – Sir Tim Berners-Lee

Sir_Tim_Berners-LeeA computer scientist, best known as the inventor of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee is rarely out of the headlines, despite being a very private man who doesn’t court publicity.

Within the space of a month this year Sir Tim has made the news on topics as varied as selling citizens’ browsing data, questioning the spread of ‘nasty’ ideas on social media, taking a tough stance on ‘fake news’, winning the prestigious Turing award, to urging the government not to undermine encryption in services like WhatsApp.

 

 

Formula for the perfect science PR story

Sep 8, 2015 in blog

Formula for the perfect science PR story

For a long time there was a trend amongst science PR officers for formulaic stories which promoted a particular area of science, an organisation, or a campaign of some sort. Last week, Visit England revived a Royal Academy of Engineering story on Pooh Sticks to promote the best rivers to visit to play the game. Here it is covered by the BBC.

In 2004, physicists hit rock bottom when the Institute of Physics released a story to coincide with the release of the final ever episode of Sex in the City. I had some small responsibility for this one and it still sends a shudder of guilty pleasure down my spine. This formula was for high heel shoes and helped you work out just how high they could be before you’d fall over. Here’s the Guardian’s take on it. Thanks to the IoP, women everywhere are staying upright (just remember to take a calculator when you go shopping).

This one seemed to be the straw which broke David Derbyshire’s back at the Daily Telegraph. Coming after a long run of similar stories from the physics community – how to cook the perfect Christmas turkey, how long you can dunk your biscuit for before it breaks – he took the unusual step of criticising PROs openly in an amusing op-ed article offering up a formula for creating formulae.

They certainly do no favours for science or scientists. The results are intended to bamboozle, and present science as an unobtainable mysterious world of meaningless numbers and jargon.

Here’s the formula he offers:

C = (O x B x BL) + (E/R) + S – !

C (column inches generated)
O (public interest in activity)
B (topicality)
BL (how common activity is)
E (number of days since the last equation appeared)
R (important news events that day)
S (whether attractive model/singer/actor can be photographed alongside story)
! (irritation triggered by formulaic stories)

While many specialist journalists shared his irritation, the blame couldn’t entirely be assigned to the PROs. These stories got massive amounts of national and international press coverage both in print, online, and on broadcast media. If the objective was column inches, they certainly worked. Hungry news editors with less taste and sophistication than hardworking science correspondents lapped them up and demanded more. PROs were just feeding the beast, and perhaps being a little lazy as well – it was easy.

If you’re an account manager working in a PR agency and your client sets you the objective to generate the largest amount of media coverage possible which mentions their name, then why do more.

Even some illustrious science organisations are guilty of responding to criticism by highlighting the thickness of their press cuttings pile and claiming that they secured “over £5million in free advertising for the Society”.

At the Institute of Physics, where I was a press officer at the time, we took this as a signal to stop producing such shallow missives, and start thinking a bit harder about how we generate headlines on science which actually serve the best interests of the scientific community as well as do something meaningful in generating public engagement. We didn’t just want column inches, we wanted to use the media to do something

This also went alongside a mission to stop patronising or talking down to the public about science. A move away from the physics of skateboards and high heel shoes, and towards promoting real physics even if it is hard, and even if many people can’t completely understand it.

There’s a reason so many people read A Brief History of Time or the huge demand for books and articles on the LHC and Higgs Boson. They love hard science or big science and want to be inspired to find out more.

But the tide of PR formulae continued – not every PR agency was as concerned about this as the IoP. In 2009, Simon Singh published a round up of some of the latest efforts and also some of the things PR agencies has asked him to get involved with. My quest for a perfectly awful formula appeared in the Guardian. Here he says:

“Despite the fact that these media-friendly formulae have enough variables to make them look as though they are based on proper research, in most cases they are effectively meaningless. Indeed, I have been approached a couple of times by PR companies who have wanted me to construct similarly cockamamie formulae.”

In promoting his recent book, The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets, even Dr. Singh is happy to use the media for his own PR purposes – even using a headline some might balk at (‘Homer Simpson discovered the Higgs Boson ten years ago’). The difference is that these are real formulae which represent some of the greatest questions in maths or physics and so promoting them, even in a slightly silly way, hopefully serves a purpose wider than just selling books.

I’ve also been reminded recently that there’s nothing wrong with science being fun or being used to explain fun or entertaining topics or pastimes (such an an innocent day spent playing Pooh Sticks in a beautiful setting, co-ordinates provided courtesy of Visit England). And I’d agree. Let’s talk about fluid dynamics, surface tension, flow rates, calculating the specific mass of an object, turbulence even. But we don’t need an equation to work out which river to go to.

Although, we might need an equation that helps us calculate the optimum amount of science we can introduce whilst also having fun.

So, let’s not be afraid of hard science even if it is presented in a silly way. If you’re trying to promote a product or a campaign and think science might be able to provide an interesting angle for a story, speak to some scientists and engineers, see what real research is out there, and use that. Don’t take the easy route and opt for an equation knocked up in the space of a single phone call.

Posted by David Reid.

 

A very brief history of 1 Victoria Street

Sep 5, 2013 in blog

The site now occupied by the high-rise offices of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills on the Eastern corner of Victoria Street has a colourful history. At various times it was home to alms houses for the poor, offices for solicitors, pulpit for Calvinist preachers, and the site of the first printing press where William Caxton achieved the very “first book ever printed in these kingdoms”.

19th Century

Map Of London 1868, By Edward Weller, F.R.G.S. Revised And Corrected To The Present Time By John Dower, F.R.G.S.

Map Of London 1868, By Edward Weller, F.R.G.S.
Revised And Corrected To The Present Time By John Dower, F.R.G.S.

From 1863, the Eastern corner of Victoria Street was occupied by the Westminster Chambers – a giant office complex for agents, solicitors, and others involved with Parliament or the law courts of Westminster. It was built as part of a regeneration project and the architects, Banks and Barry, intended it to:

“form a striking entrance to this great street, and redeem it from the waste and desolate character which it has presented for so many years.”

0591

You can find a more detailed description of the building and its uses here. 

17-18th Century (and before)

Before Victoria Street was built, two main thoroughfares ran directly West from the area around the Abbey and Dean’s Yard: Orchard Street and Tothill Street. The modern Victoria Street slices through first Tothill, then Orchard, then on to Old Pye Street as it travels North West.

A bit of guesswork comparing a number of old maps is needed to work out exactly where the current corner of Victoria Street would have been, but it is certainly within a small area which was occupied by New Way and the Almonry which started adjacent the Sanctuary of the Abbey precincts and occupied a large area towards the North West (from the Abbey). This area has a facinating history.

Screen Shot 2013-09-05 at 18.16.37

In the New Way resided the well-known Sir Robert Pye, from whom Old and New Pye Streets derive their names, and the husband of Anne Hampden, the “patriot’s” daughter. The New Way Chapel stood, according to Hopwood’s map of 1801, at the west end of the Great Almonry, opposite the entrance to Jeffery’s Buildings from New Tothill Street: here the celebrated Calvinist, Romaine, used to preach, previous to his election as Lecturer of St. Dunstan’s-in-theWest.

The Almonry & Great Almonry, Westminster

Close to the Sanctuary, and indeed adjoining its western side, was the Eleemosynary or Almonry, where the alms of the Abbey were daily doled out to the poor and needy. But it is far more memorable on quite another account—namely, as the first place in which a printing-press was set up in England. This was, says Pennant, in the year 1474, when William Caxton, encouraged by the learned Thomas Milling, then abbot, produced here “The Game and Play of the Chesse” “the first book ever printed in these kingdoms. There is,” he adds, “a slight difference about the exact spot where it was printed; but all agree that it was within the precincts of this religious house.”

The Almonry was a building, analogous to our more prosaic modern alms-houses, erected by King Henry VII and his mother, the Lady Margaret, to the glory of God, for twelve poor men and poor women. The building was afterwards converted into lodgings for the choir-men of the Abbey, and called Choristers’ Rents. These were pulled down at the beginning of the 19th century. Hard by stood the Chapel of St. Anne, now commemorated by St. Anne’s Lane. This lane occupies part of the ground covered by the orchard and fruit-gardens of the Abbey; and close to the present Dean’s Yard gate were “The Elms.” Across the court ran the granary, parallel with what was the prior’s lodging.

The Almonry was divided into two parts: the Great Almonry consisted of two oblong portions, parallel to the two Tothill Streets, and connected by a narrow lane (the entrance being from Dean’s Yard); and that the Little Almonry, running southward, stood at its eastern end.

More information & sources:

‘Westminster Abbey: The sanctuary and almonry’, Old and New London: Volume 3 (1878), pp. 483-491.
URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=45169

Crace Collection of Maps of London, British Library.

Bubble science

Jun 4, 2013 in blog, case study

Bubble science

In the news today is an interesting story about how researchers at the University of Sheffield have used hot microbubbles to develop a new technique that will allow manufacturers to make food products more efficiently. Whether because they’re fun or because everyone knows what one is, science stories involving bubbles (of all shapes and sizes) always attract plenty of media attention. BBC Four even produced a one hour documentary about the science of bubbles called ‘POP!”

In 2003, I wrote a story for the Institute of Physics about antibubbles based on a paper by Stephane Dorbolo (and colleagues) from the University of Liège in Belgium. The research, published in the New Journal of Physics, revealed for the first time how antibubbles form and move through a liquid.

Antibubbles are the exact opposite of bubbles and move down instead of up. Whereas a bubble is a thin flim of liquid in air which encloses a pocket of air, an antibubble is a thin film of air made inside a liquid, enclosing a pocket of that liquid. Scientists have known about them for almost a century but why and how they form was a mystery until this paper was published.

rise_of_antibubbles_01
Prompted by their claim that they could create antibubbles in a variety of liquids, I asked whether it would be possible (in theory) to do this with Belgium’s most famous export – beer. Little did I know this was actually a very interesting scientific proposition.

The researchers didn’t think it would be possible because you can’t create antibubbles (or bubbles) in pure water, alcohol or oil. However, they found that you can make antibubbles in beer. This is because beer contains protein which makes it a surfactant just like dishwashing liquid – demonstrating what British real-ale drinkers have claimed for a long time: that Belgian beer actually is a lot like dish-water! Dr Stephane Dorbolo said:

“Antibubbles are mysterious phenomena but we now understand them much better. We have come up with a good model describing how they form and move and have also learnt more about the type of liquids you can create them in. We tried to create them in beer for fun, and didn’t think it would be possible, but were amazed when we magaged to create giant antibubbles which lasted for almost two minutes and that moved around a glass of beer before bursting.”

 

“You can’t create antibubbles in pure water, alcohol or oil. But beer is a special case because it is very similar to dishwashing liquid and contains what we call surfactants which is what you need to be able to produce anti bubbles. We also found that when they die, or burst, they morph into a form of structure which we have nicknamed the jellyfish form because it looks very like a jellyfish swimming through water. It slowly moves and fades away until it disappears altogether.”

 

 

The BBC covered the story and even included a guide on how to make antibubbles at home. The images the team produced of bursting antibubbles were strange and beautiful (if you subscribe to New Scientist you can see them here).  The Guardian’s Tim Radford poked gentle fun at the piece saying it was “yet another demonstration of very domestic science: in the past few years physicists have examined why biscuits crumble . . . how to make the perfect cup of tea . . . and only last week the equation for making the perfect roast turkey.”

The pictures of antibubbles in a glass of Belgian beer appeared in most national media the day after we released the story and continued to be featured in magazines all around the world. Domestic, yes. Fun, certainly. But also very interesting science.

You can read the original IOP press release in our archives here and, if you’re interested in the life and death of antibubbles, Physics World magazine has more details on the research here.

Posted by David Reid.

From our archives: extreme observatories

Mar 4, 2013 in blog, case study

From our archives: extreme observatories

Following the announcement that the UK government are providing £88m in funding for what will become the world’s biggest optical telescope, the European – Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), we delved into our archives.

The E-ELT will be built in Chile’s “mirror valley” (the Atacama desert), but not all observatories are so easy to build or work in. In this feature from June 2006 Sky at Night magazine, Matter PR’s managing director David Reid tours some of the most inhospitable observatories on Earth.

Tough Science Thumbnail

 

Symbols matter

Feb 14, 2013 in blog

Symbols matter

Matter’s visual identity takes inspiration from the chemical symbols used in the Periodic Table. But where did its design come from and why have these symbols become so iconic? (more…)