Aesop’s Animals: Truth, Science, and Fable with Jo Wimpenny

What scientific truths lie behind the millennia-old collection of moral tales we know as Aesop’s Fables? Do the stories tell us something about real-life animal behaviour? How do our myths and metaphors match up to the realities of the natural world?

Zoologist Dr. Jo Wimpenny‘s new book Aesop’s Animals explores all of these questions, linking ancient stories to the latest research into animal behaviour, and challenging our assumptions about the animal kingdom.

Jo and I spoke on the eve of the book’s launch.

We might think we know what Aesop’s Fables are, but was there even really a historical Aesop? What do we mean when we talk about “Aesop’s Fables”?

An exact answer isn’t possible: Aesop’s Fables stretch back to something like two thousand five hundred years ago, which we know because certain ancient scholars of the time mentioned the fables in their writing. Those scholars certainly thought there was an Aesop, though it’s a disputed point; a lot of modern historians point to inaccuracies in descriptions of him, which suggest there may not have been a single author who bore that name. Today there are hundreds of fables attributed to Aesop, but some of these may have been created later, building on the existing tales.

The standard view is that Aesop was a slave, who might have been Greek, Turkish or Ethiopian, who created little moral fables, moral messages. They weren’t about animal behaviour, and they weren’t based on science, because science as we know it didn’t exist at that point. They used animal and mythological characters to communicate moral teachings.

The story goes that Aesop won his freedom by being a master storyteller – that he used his wit and intelligence to entertain and educate people, impressing those in power into granting him his freedom.

The basis for my book is less about whether Aesop was a real person, and more about this very real collection of stories which verifiably does date back to the ancient world.

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Masterclass for ASPAC Emerging Leaders

Early in August 2020, I ran two workshops as part of a three-day masterclass for emerging leaders at ASPAC, the Asia Pacific Network of Science and Technology Centres.

39 participants from across the Asia Pacific joined me for a day exploring the future environment for the region’s science and technology centres, and the use of design tools to create effective strategies.

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Working together across the timezones, we produced mini-scenarios to explore uncertainties which might prove challenging or opportune in the future, and explored ways to structure and test our thinking when it came to new initatives for ASPAC and its member institutions.

Maria Isabel Garcia, Executive Director, ASPAC:

“In August 2020, we asked Matt to conduct two workshops as part of a masterclass for 40 emerging leaders in our Asia-Pacific network of science centres. The two workshops were ‘reimagining the future of science engagement’ and ‘redesigning science centres’, respectively.

Matt laid out very clearly and very generously how the participants were going to reimagine and redesign. The workshop was supremely engaging and Matt’s approach strongly motivated the participants to follow the process. The breakouts which were prompted by Matt’s questions allowed for heightened collaboration!

The “tributes” from Masterclass participants showed that they overwhelmingly felt  Matt’s workshop made them push boundaries that they had not even previously acknowledged, or were afraid to cross. This was especially relevant during this pandemic and will be for a long, long time, if not forever. We have more courage now among our emerging leaders.”

You can read more about working online with me, as ASPAC did, here.

Post-normal science in the time of COVID-19: Discussion with Jerome Ravetz

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been speaking and exchanging e-mails with the philosopher of science Jerome Ravetz, one of the originators of the notion of Post-Normal Science. This is an approach to science which addresses the wider social context in which scientists and their institutions operate, intended to serve in situations where high-stakes decisions must be made and the environment is characterised by deep uncertainty.

JerryRavetz
Jerry Ravetz, by Wikipedia user Saltean – CC BY-SA 4.0

Given that definition, what could be more “post-normal” than our experience of 2020? Jerome and I had a long chat which covered the pandemic and our response to it, warring traditions of folk and elite science, philosophy, gender, science fiction, truth & reconciliation, and electoral politics.

You can read the full transcript of our chat as a PDF download here, but some extended highlights appear below.

Matt:
So, what does an exponent of post-normal science make of the current pandemic?

Jerry:
For a while, the uncertainties and complexities diagnosed by the post-normal science approach have been coming in from the margins, until right now they’re almost in the mainstream of thought and discussion. Once that happens, it will open new possibilities – and new problems. Read more

Getting Your Head Around Post-Normal Science

Something of a long read on the blog today. I first came across Jerome Ravetz’s work in his 2011 piece on feral futures co-written with Rafael Ramírez in the journal Futures. In that piece, the authors argue that complex, uncertain issues such as environmental disasters can be made worse by conventional risk-based thinking. I think through some of the ways in which this is important for us to consider in 2020 in this blog, “Our feral future: working on the crises you did(n’t) see coming.

I find Ravetz’s approach thought-provoking, pragmatic, and deeply relevant to the present moment. It attends to questions of uncertainty and emphasises that science itself is situated within complex social, political, cultural, and economic contexts. Especially when we find ourselves being told that, for example, decisions on quarantine and lockdown measures are being “guided by the science” under contested circumstances, it’s worth getting your head around the idea of “post-normal science.”

Today, I want to go through some of the key points articulated in Ravetz’s 2006 No-Nonsense Guide to Science and the updated 2020 version of his landmark 1993 essay with Silvio O. Funtowicz, “Science for the Post-Normal Age“. Check those texts out, if you want to go deeper.

Defenders of the Truth
Climate Marchers, by Wikipedia user Mark Dixon CC BY-SA 2.0

Post-normal science is a way of rethinking science for situations – and eras – in which facts are uncertain, values are in dispute, the stakes are high, and decisions are urgent. It recognises that the social and political dimensions of science cannot be sidelined, isolated, or ignored.

The increasingly complex systems of today’s world are threatened by environmental catastrophe, pollution, and other incidents, like the COVID-19 outbreak, which are exacerbated by the technologies sustaining our way of life.

Science must therefore find new ways to cope with contradiction, uncertainty, and an ever-wider political conversation featuring a wide range of perspectives. It must now address the problems of a global system which itself was based on science.

Why “post-normal”?
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ASPAC 2019: Australia on the front lines of human crisis

Is Australia on the front lines of the 21st century human crisis?

Societies and cultures live there which have, for thousands of years, considered that the land itself has spirit and agency.

On the same land, Australia has built prosperity from the extractive industries, using technology to remove resources from the ground in a way which has global impact.

How can these values be reconciled? What part do science and technology centres have to play in the debate about our sustainable future?

My keynote for the ASPAC 2019 science and technology centres conference was covered in the Brisbane Times.

Preparing for Worlds We Didn’t See Coming @ ASPAC 2019

Queensland Museum & Science Centre
Queensland Museum & Science Centre by Wikipedia user GordonMakryllos – CC BY-SA 4.0

“A long time ago, when I was a child, I went to a Science Centre. Back then, there was nothing like it – a truly hands-on space of adventure and learning, in an age when most museums kept their exhibits under glass.

“On most of the Science Centre exhibits, you turned a crank, hoped to see something awesome happen – then read the didactic to see what you were supposed to have learned.

“Pedagogy has moved on, but so has the world. What happens when you “turn the crank” of science and causality breaks down? What happens when social and natural systems collapse, public trust fractures, and old worldviews reveal their blind spots?

“What would the ‘Post-Normal Science Centre’ look like?”

Next month, I’ll be speaking as the opening keynote at this year’s Asia Pacific Network of Science and Technology Centres Conference – ASPAC 2019.

Wondrous Strange at Ann Arbor District Libraries

I’m just back from a week delivering training and community engagement for Ann Arbor District Libraries, an acclaimed public library service in Michigan, USA.

The micro-residency culminated in an all-ages half-day event called “Wondrous Strange”, blending play, history, prophecy, technology, art, craft, science fiction, time travel, and storytelling.

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Wondrous Strange was an opportunity for the Ann Arbor community to venture into an imagined world blending fact and fiction, and to create their own shared stories and experiences stretching from recorded history into the distant future.

More on my Michigan visit soon, but for now here’s a short video from last Sunday’s session.

Artists Ettamodern & Scribbletronics visit University of Southern Queensland

As part of this week’s Astronomy Festival at the University of Southern Queensland, we’re joined by Melbourne artists Wendy Catling and Peter Miller, aka Ettamodern and Scribbletronics.

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Wendy is an artist, designer and teacher who employs light to create works on paper and fabric – particularly blueprint-style ‘cyanotypes’. Her prints are held in the collections of Warrnambool Art Gallery, the Australian National Gallery, and private owners.

Peter is a composer, sound designer, and audio-visual artist whose work includes sound design for films The Ring and Rango and additional design for Mad Max: Fury Road, as well as a sound installation in the Qantas first-class lounges in Sydney and Melbourne.

I’ve previously worked with Ettamodern and Scribbletronics on the Time Travel Detectives roleplay, which was built around two of Peter’s digital artworks. This children’s event blended steampunk adventure, optical illusions, and tablet technology to help kids explore Australia’s past and the scientific method.

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On this visit, Wendy and Peter will join USQ staff, students, and the wider community to explore new opportunities to work at the meeting point of art, science, and community engagement. Find out more at the University of Southern Queensland’s website.

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