New Marvels, New Lenses: A Podcast

What can relatively young disciplines like information science and the allied health professions tell us about society and pop culture?

This weekend I hosted a podcast featuring scientist-turned-literary-editor Yen-Rong Wong, librarian Rachel Merrick, and occupational therapist Amelia DiTommaso, all based in Brisbane, Australia.

On the eve of a new exhibition at Queensland’s Gallery of Modern Art, these three creative professionals got together to explore Marvel’s superhero movies through new lenses informed by their expertise and experience.

Focusing on Doctor Strange (2016), the discussion embraced magic, mystery, science, history, identity, culture, politics, heroism, and lots of laughter.

From the history of Australian censorship to the dark side of healthcare, challenges in identity and representation, plus the arcane mysteries of  “readers’ advisory”, listen now for a mind-expanding journey.

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

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.

Science and Belonging at Brisbane Writers Festival 2016

1: Anti-panels

On Sunday, I hosted the Science and Belonging panel at Brisbane Writers Festival.

Scientists Tamara Davis and Maggie Hardy joined writers Ellen van Neerven and Maree Kimberley for a conversation about their work and the crossovers between art, science, storytelling, and identity.

We wanted the people attending our event to be participants, not just an audience – so I helped the library devise an “anti-panel” session inspired by our Broadband and Heritage workshops earlier this year.

In the “anti-panel”, the audience split up into four groups. Each group got to spend ten minutes in conversation with each of our four guests. At the end of that forty-minute session, we held a plenary panel where our guests reflected on the discussions they’d had, and more questions could be fielded from the floor.

The aim was to change audiences’ experience at a festival panel from “sitting watching VIPs have a conversation, with maybe a few questions at the end” to full interaction and engagement.

Our tools weren’t digital devices or social media apps, but wheelie chairs and a stopwatch.

And we learned as we went – adapting, for example, to the acoustics of the space during group discussion.

The experiment in event design was part of a broader conversation I’ve been having with David Robertson around audience participation and public engagement. You can read more of his work at the Beyond Panels website, a great one-stop shop for alternative event formats.

2: We Need To Talk About Kelvin

The 2016 Brisbane Writers Festival will be notorious for Lionel Shriver’s controversial keynote, which challenged notions of cultural appropriation, and the powerful response to it from Yassmin Abdel-Magied.

Festival organisers quickly organised a right-to-reply for Yassmin and other writers, which you can watch on Yassmin’s Facebook page. (The live stream was filmed by Yen-Rong Wong, whose account of the dispute is also worth reading).

Our Science and Belonging event, presented by the State Library of Queensland for the Festival, was part of the library’s year-long theme of Belonging – an exploration of many different Queensland identities and experiences.

During the event, we were asked if we had deliberately chosen an all-women panel of experts. We hadn’t – we simply wanted outstanding practitioners of science and science-fiction – but we also acknowledged the importance of bringing together women, migrants, and Indigenous people as experts on a panel which was not “the token diversity panel”.

I’m proud that the Library and the Festival were able to deliver this special celebration of science and speculative fiction with a distinctive Queensland flavour. See more from Brisbane Writers Festival via the #bwf16 hashtag on Twitter.

Science, Arts, and Community Engagement: Not Just For Wizards

A new interdisciplinary literacy is the only hope for finding a way to square our current arrangement of life with the continuation of human and planetary life as such. Scientists, philosophers, anthropologists, politicians, political theorists, historians, writers, and artists must gather their wisdom, develop a level of mutual literacy, and cross-pollinate their severed lineages.

Beth Povinelli, Interview for The Signal In Transition

I think there’s a lot of merit in Beth Povinelli’s words about science and the arts and different ways of knowing.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot as momentum builds for this October’s Fun Palaces, the international community-led celebration of arts and sciences.

Fun Palaces can look like cuddly fluffy things, but they’re also events which are serious about acknowledging the talents and understanding which local communities already have. They’re very serious, too, about exploring what it means to say, as their motto does, “everyone an artist, everyone a scientist.”

Those two terms can seem intimidating sometimes. “Artists” and “scientists” sound like privileged, elevated folk compared to you and I – so the way I always put it is this:

If a two-year-old ever handed you an imaginary phone and said “Ring ring”, and you answered it, you’re an artist – because you joined in their creative play.

And if you ever made soup from a recipe, tasted it, and said “needs more salt”, then added some, you’re a scientist – because you revised your belief in the face of evidence.

Eating soup!

Read more

“At last, something I can talk about!” – Fun Palaces at Lambeth Libraries

After a stint carrying out research for publishers and media productions – projects which I’ll look forward to talking about when I’m allowed to! – I’m pleased to announce that I’ll be working as a creative producer with the London Borough of Lambeth, helping their library staff to devise and deliver ten Fun Palaces with local communities on Saturday 3rd October 2015.

Fun Palaces are the international movement creating pop-up venues for communities to try their hands at science and the arts. Last year, I worked with Parkes Library on Australia’s first Fun Palace which incorporated tabletop games and supervillainous challenges alongside creative play for all ages.

I’m looking forward to taking things further with Lambeth in 2015. Our events will tie in to Black History Month and feature a range of stargazing, cybernetic, all-embracing, all-ages art and adventure. Watch this space for more news.

In the meantime you can read my article “Pushing the Limits: Play, Explore, Experiment” for British librarians’ in-house magazine CILIP Update, which looks at Fun Palaces alongside other arts and community adventures from the UK, Australia, and New Zealand:

CILIP Update Finch Article Cover Image

Sign up to create your own Fun Palace at the Fun Palaces website.

The Library Innovation Toolkit, Out Now

The Library Innovation Toolkit

The Library Innovation Toolkit is out today from ALA Editions!

The book “encourages readers to take big risks, ask deeper questions, strive for better service, and dream bigger ideas”, with practical examples and suggestions for 21st century library services.

I wrote “Monsters, Rockets, and Baby Racers”, the chapter on working with children and young people, together with Tracie Mauro of Australia’s Parkes Library.

Readers will get inspiration and case studies from the team which picked up a 2014 national award for innovation in youth services.

If you fancy unleashing the power of play and immersive storytelling in your museum, gallery, school, or library, the book’s worth checking out. You can buy it from ALA Editions at their website.

From monsters to Manila: a few upcoming events

Awestruck Time Travel Detectives!
Awestruck Time Travel Detectives at Parkes Shire Library, New South Wales

Once again, it’s busy times over at Finch Towers. I owe this blog a report on Time Travel Detectives and Big Box Battle, two immersive roleplay activities that I’ve just run at Parkes Library. That’s coming, but in the meantime you can see a few photographs from the two events below. There’s no qualitative assessment quite as cool as the awestruck expression on a child’s face…or the air-punching victory of a seven-year-old girl who just took down a chainsaw wielding Elvis robot.

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Next week sees schools from around Central West New South Wales converge on Tullamore for the sequel to 2012’s zombie showdown, and after that I’ll be speaking in Manila and Sydney.

Zombie at the window
ALWAYS with the zombies…

In Manila, I’ll be running a youth activity for the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design, (MCAD) as well as speaking to Filipino librarians on strategy and innovation. MCAD made a rather beautiful poster for the event:

Poster for Matt's talk on librarianship to Manila museum of contemporary art and design

After that, I’ll be speaking at a New South Wales Writers’ Centre event on Thursday 24th October, Monsters Under The Bed, alongside novelist Kate Forsyth and researcher Nyssa Harkness. We’ll be looking at the place of monsters in children’s and Young Adult fiction – and with Nyssa’s gaming background, I’m hoping we get to explore whether our relationship to monsters changes in an age when interactive storytelling and gaming often allow us to struggle with them directly… You can order tickets for the event at the Writers’ Centre Eventbrite page.

And when all that is done, I have a few words for you on immersive roleplay, performance and literacy, and embedding stories in a community. Stay tuned…

Comics, Ink and Science

Bryan Grieg Fry with an alligator
Bryan Grieg Fry

My article on Bryan Grieg Fry, the heavily tattooed venom expert at the University of Queensland, appears in the forthcoming print edition of Australasian Science magazine.

I’ve also written on using comic books in the classroom for the curriculum supplement to this month’s New Zealand Education Gazette.

To tie in with this article, I’ll be posting additional interviews, resources and guest writing on using comics in the classroom under the comicsedu tag.

Watch out for posts and wise words from the likes of graphic novelist Jessica Abel, artist-educator Nick Sousanis, staff from University College London’s “Supergods” workshops, and many more.