Cheese, Drugs, and Moonshots: A Science March special for @kylastephan

Kyla Stephan who writes the marvellous Library Ghost blog knitted me a hat for today’s Science March in Brisbane.

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There are rightly some questions to be asked about the march organisers’ approach to diversity and inclusion, but I also thought it was important to show up and be counted in the name of all people who are curious about the world and revise their beliefs in the face of evidence.

In return for my hat, I had to find Kyla an interesting science story.

So here are a few words about drug dosage and cheesy moonshots.

What are the physics of highly compressed cheese and why does it matter?

My favourite science show-off moment was at a conference on Science and Storytelling at the University of Cardiff some years ago.

I was interested in how medics and health workers used storytelling in science, and one of my favourite projects was by an information scientist called Harold Thimbleby (PDF download).

He pointed out that in Europe, about 120,000 hospital deaths per year are caused by drug calculation errors – that’s more people than die in car accidents.

Not all of those errors can be blamed on the staff, however. The automatic pumps which dispense drugs through IVs etc are often difficult to program, and although they look like calculators, they are not.

An example:

A “simple” drug calculation is: how many mL/hr should an infusion pump be set to in order to give a patient 5250mg of fluorouracil over 4 days at a concentration of 45.57 mg/mL?

The simplest correct calculation using a basic calculator is: [AC][MRC][MRC]4 × 24 [MPLUS][AC]5250 ÷ 45.57 ÷[MRC] =

After getting all those key presses right, you then have to go through another round of button presses on the pump, without making any mistakes. All as just one task in your busy day at the hospital.

Professor Thimbleby developed a prototype smartphone app which asked you what the drug calculation was, and the type of pump you were using, and then guided you through the key presses step by step.

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This reduced human error and created opportunities for the user to check and double check throughout the process.

What has all that got to do with a moon made of cheese?

Almost offhandedly, during his talk, Professor Thimbleby spoke of the certainty with which we know the moon isn’t made of cheese. He compared this scientific certainty to the world of storytelling, where we can still indulge that fantasy.

Even without visiting the moon, we can tell it isn’t made of cheese because of its albedo – the fraction of solar energy which it reflects back into space.

Different materials have different reflectivity: for example, ice and snow have a high albedo and cause most of the sunlight hitting them to reflect back into space.

We can work out the albedo of cheese and observe the brightness of the moon to confirm that it is, sadly, not made from dairy products.

But – but but but – what if the moon were made of cheese? How could we indulge that fantasy while maintaining the rigour of critical and scientific thinking?

Do we need to imagine a cheese-moon which is the same size or the same mass?

If the latter, the moon would have to be a lot larger. Nocturnal animals and the science of astronomy would be affected by the larger moon in our sky, with its much higher albedo.

What’s more, a moon sized piece of cheese would be denser and hotter at its centre owing to gravitational compression.

Would there be volcanos of molten cheese? At extreme high pressures, does cheese maintain its integrity, or break down into its component parts? Would the massive internal pressure cause it to explode?

I love that scientists can begin to explore these hypothetical situations without even having to leave the comfort of their armchair – or in our case, the post-march pub.

I love that there is a happy borderland where science and science fiction meet, and valuably so – because they are, ultimately, both spaces of wonder.

Professor Thimbleby made his cheesy digression and showed the value of thinking carefully and critically, reasoning from available evidence – but his work also demonstrates that you could save lives just by paying close attention to technology and human interaction.

He didn’t need to be in the ward to come up with a way to avoid deaths from drug miscalculation, and he didn’t need to land on the moon to work out what it was made of.

How cool is that? Read more

Why hire a Creative in Residence?

Jane Cowell of State Library of Queensland has not one, but five answers for you over at Medium.

Jane hired me back in January 2016 for a residency intended to develop staff, challenge convention, engage the wider community, and showcase the organisation’s creative practice. Now, more than a year later, we’re looking back on a successful stint embracing libraries, communities, and partner organisations across Australia’s Sunshine State.

Read more about creative residencies over at Jane Cowell’s Medium account.

Three sentences – a good day’s work

Sometimes three sentences are a good day’s work.

I’ve been helping library leaders to refine an elevator pitch for the work State Library of Queensland does with public libraries.

RAPL, the Regional Access and Public Libraries team, has a range of duties – from administering grants to delivering professional development, fostering peer-to-peer networking, and setting industry standards. RAPL staff also promote literacy and wellbeing for children under five years old, support the digital skills of senior citizens, and advocate to local government on libraries’ behalf.

How do we condense that into something that is clear, elegant, brief, and compelling?

Well, here’s what we came up with:

Our scope, our goal, our offer:

Queensland has over 300 public libraries and Indigenous Knowledge Centres in communities from the desert to the reefs, from the mountains to the Torres Strait.

Together with local government, we ensure all Queenslanders have access to great public libraries that help communities thrive.

We advocate for public libraries, support their collections, their staff, and their programmes, and we share their successes.

Read more

What’s next

From May, I’ll be joining the University of Southern Queensland for six months supporting “proactive, strategic, and sustainable engagement with key stakeholders and communities internal and external to USQ.”

Working with Professor Helen Partridge and her fab team in USQ’s Scholarly Information and Learning Services division, I’ll be acting as a coach and catalyst to raise awareness, understanding, and capacity in maintaining a sustainable community engagement program.

I visited USQ last year to talk about community engagement, healthcare, storytelling, digital media, and what really listening to people and technology in Australia might entail.

This new adventure is going to be cracking good fun – but there’s still a few more exciting things to come out of my extended residency with the State Library of Queensland, so watch this space.

Curiosity vs The Post-Truth World

Among my weekend reads was Tim Harford’s Financial Times piece “The Problem with Facts“.

We’re big Harford fans around these parts, not just for his podcast More or Less but also his book Messy, which I’ve been inflicting on various colleagues and friends around Australia.

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In the FT piece, Harford takes us back from the fake news and false claims of political debate in the age of Trump and Brexit to the history of “doubt manufacture” in the 20th century, and the tobacco industry’s attempts to blur the links between smoking and cancer.

He examines the limits of fact-checking as a response or a rebuke to those who cloud public discourse with lies.

He tells us that scientific literacy is not necessarily the answer, that it “can actually widen the gap between different political tribes on issues such as climate change — that is, well-informed liberals and well-informed conservatives are further apart in their views than liberals and conservatives who know little about the science.”

Harford goes on to outline a paper “Scientific Curiosity and Political Information Processing” by Dan Kahan, Asheley Landrum, Katie Carpenter, Laura Helft and Kathleen Hall Jamieson.

Those authors argue that it is worth exploring further whether a person’s curiosity about science can counteract our tendency to view the world through the lens of political bias.

Their initial findings prompt them to explore whether

individuals who have an appetite to be surprised by scientific information—who find it pleasurable to discover that the world does not work as they expected—do not turn this feature of their personality off when they engage political information but rather indulge it in that setting as well, exposing themselves more readily to information that defies their expectations about facts on contested issues. The result is that these citizens, unlike their less curious counterparts, react more open mindedly and respond more uniformly across the political spectrum to the best available evidence.

As Harford puts it, “Curiosity is the seed from which sensible democratic decisions can grow. It seems to be one of the only cures for politically motivated reasoning but it’s also, into the bargain, the cure for a society where most people just don’t pay attention to the news because they find it boring or confusing.”

All of this is great news for those of us working at the odd intersection of knowledge and culture, where communities meet institutions like galleries, museums, libraries, universities, and healthcare providers.

I’ve been worrying for a while now, even with events as warm and cuddly as the annual Fun Palace celebrations of art and science, about the times we choose to take scientific claims on faith.

I worry too about what part libraries have to play in the battle against fake news and egregiously false claims in the media. Is the library a trusted dispenser of facts and information? A repository of the truth? Or, rather, a safe place for you to indulge your curiosity, to wander as you see fit through all the contested claims and different visions of human knowledge and culture?

Harford’s take on that research paper returns us to the notion of each individual’s curiosity and exploration as the basis of scientific endeavour and the quest for truth. It returns us not to blind faith in science or reliance on fact checkers, but a sense that we must always actively challenge and revise our beliefs.

It reminds me why, in the last few years, we’ve allowed kids to sketch time-travelling creepy crawlies from a steampunk world to encourage scientific observation; why we spent last week in the Aussie town of Bundaberg to help rural writers speculate  about the future of society; why we’ve been training health professionals using far-fetched and fantastic case studies like the Immortal Sock Monkey. It’s because these activities each became a matter of curiosity and wonder, rather than a mere transfer of facts from a person in authority. Curiosity and wonder might just be the best antiseptic for the spread of fake news.

If the formal research into scientific curiosity proves fruitful, it could guide and nuance our attempts to encourage  a world where people are free to learn, explore, create, and play as they wish to, not just in accordance with curriculums and constraints.

It wouldn’t just be about science, either. For isn’t art, too, a matter of curiosity about materials, expression, and representation? And don’t those of us who find ourselves on colonised lands need, as Columbia anthropologist Beth Povinelli has been arguing, to become more curious, too, about Indigenous ways of knowing and understanding the world?

This is a difficult moment for those of us who value the truth in public life and wish to push back against those who maliciously sow doubt and deliberate misinformation. But Tim Harford’s article reminds us that there are ways forward for those of us unwilling to embrace a post-truth world  – and that, wonderfully, those ways might even be incredibly exciting, incredibly adventurous, and incredibly good fun.

Peace for the Immortal Sock Monkey

My friend Stevie made the sock monkey – a placid purple chap with chubby limbs and buttons for eyes. He seemed pretty satisfied with existence, but his deeper woes had gone unseen.

Two Student Occupational Therapists from Griffith University pose with their client, an immortal sock monkey

It turned out that the sock monkey was cursed to live forever, and as the centuries rolled by, he was succumbing to despair. Two students from the Occupational Therapy course at Australia’s Griffith University decided to help, using their professional skills to explore ways of reconciling him to a happier immortality.

Read more

Becoming death literate – panel discussion

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After Brisbane’s first Deathfest – a microfestival which explores, challenges, and celebrates our understanding of death, dying, and bereavement – I’m pleased to share a panel discussion which addressed grief, death, and end-of-life care in modern-day Queensland.

Joining me were Fiona Hawthorne, general manager at Hummingbird House, Queensland’s first children’s hospice; Ian Mellor, who manages body bequests for Queensland University of Technology; and Dr Sarah Winch, healthcare ethicist at the University of Queensland and author of Best Death Possible.

In an age when literacy has come to mean so many things – always with a sense of empowering people to read or make sense of some new terrain, topic, or experience – what would it mean for us to become truly “death literate”?

You can listen to the panel discussion now by clicking on this link or visit the State Library website.

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For more on healthcare and wellbeing work during my 2016 Queensland residency, read  “On Health and Wellbeing” and “Giant Robots Need Therapy Too“.

For more on Deathfest, visit the Metro Arts website.

Crawford Awards, South Australia

On Friday, I was guest speaker at South Australia’s Crawford Awards for Library Innovation.

It was a chance to explore how Aussie libraries ensure that they create services for and with their communities – and acknowledge the specific colonial history of this land.

It was also an opportunity to celebrate many of the friends and colleagues I’ve worked with during my residency at the State Library of Queensland.

The Award was given to the rural South Australian city of Murray Bridge for a project working with local Aboriginal elders, introducing the Ngarrindjeri language to a new generation through stories and song.

Congratulations to Tim Law, Georgina Trevorrow, and all at Murray Bridge who are working to acknowledge the traditional owners of the Murraylands and support their community.

Marvellous, Electrical: Play Both

“I want to see technology used for good, but I’m fascinated by the possibilities for destruction!”

Joel Edmondson, CEO of Queensland’s QMusic network talks digital technology, music beyond entertainment, mysterious orchestras in the middle of the ocean, and the “nefarious, sulphuric beginning of life” in this week’s Marvellous, Electrical.

David Cronenberg's VIDEODROME

Read “Play Both” here.

Hope and Holodecks

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Like anyone, I worry about the future.

Right now we’re on the cusp of Trumpocalypse. Even if Donald J. doesn’t get to power, the US – and the world – will have to face the consequences of his campaign. The US election is the second scary vote in the English-speaking world this year, after Brexit – and look at how riven that’s left British culture and society.

And yet – I feel hopeful.

I’ve just been reading Digital Identity 3.0 (PDF download), a report from the Chair of Digital Economy at Queensland University of Technology.

Read more