Friday, October 28, 2016

Short Attention Span Segment #11


Five awesome things every Friday. This week:

  1. 99% Invisible: On Average.  The world was not built for you, it was built on measurements around the concept of the average. But what is average? A great exploration about the origins of this statistical measurement. 
  2. If you have been watching "Westworld" you may recognise this: "Paint It Black"gets the orchestral treatment.
  3. Zen Wisdom and KATZ! Dropping Ashes on the Buddha 
  4. Shakespeare on the silver screen: Fassbender as MacBeth, Cotillard as Lady MacBeth, and exquisite set and costume design. 
  5. Every human suffers from cognitive bias, so it's best to be acquainted with your humane flaws. This is a brilliant "Cheat Sheet" for understanding and identifying cognitive bias. 


Sunday, October 16, 2016

Mental Health Week: A List for Change

This past week in Australia has been Mental Health Week. There have been some wonderful outcomes demonstrated this week; from researchers showcasing breakthroughs in understanding complex mental illness to recognition of advocacy groups,  however it's also been made very clear that there is a still a big problem around mental health. Too few of us admit when we are mentally unwell and too few of us know that it is a common.  

Until  attitudes change, until we change as a society how we treat those with mental illness, no initiative will be truly successful. People will continue to suffer in silence. People will continue to feel like their illness is not valid and will struggle. This is unwarranted and unacceptable when for many, treatment exists and could mean the difference between life and death.

As Mental Health Week comes to a close, it's important we remind ourselves that this issue is far more than hashtags. This is a major health issue that has far too many stigmas and stereotypes attached to it.  There are unfortunately only so many dollars that can go around, and thus we need to enact the changes ourselves as a community, and not over rely on already stretched resources and ignorant governments who cut funding. A little change by many individuals adds up to massive  collective shift in a society. 

While Mental Health Week has done much to raise awareness, it is up to us to continue the change the other 51 weeks of the year.  So with the end of Mental Health Week here, it's a good time to list some things I feel need to be shared in relation to mental health: 

  1. Mental illness is legitimate and real
  2. Mental illness is common (1/5 will suffer a mental illness in their lifetime)
  3. Most people with mental illness have jobs, families, dress neatly and have nice. It is not unusual to be 'high functioning'. Sometimes the highest functioning people are in fact, the most ill.
  4. Mental illness requires the expertise of medical doctors and allied health professionals who work in evidence based practice. Homeopathy, alternative medicine and natural supplements are not evidence based - in fact some can be dangerous to those taking certain medications associated with treatment of mental illness. Don't recommend them despite what you have read on the internet.
  5. Please do not refer to those with schizophrenia as 'schizophrenics' or those with depression as 'depressives' . We don't refer to people as 'broken boned' or 'the infected' when talking to someone diagnosed with a physical illness. People are not defined by an ailment, they are person suffering an ailment.  Mental illness is not the definition of a person, it is a condition a person has.
  6. The stereotype of the deranged and deluded is not a defining feature of mental illness. It is rare and if someone admits to you they are mentally ill, you have no reason to be afraid for your life. Part of the reason people don't say they are mentally ill is the stigma and fear  of being labelled as 'insane' or 'crazy'. In order to talk about it more and see improvements and support we need to stop this immediate judgement and fear.
  7. Someone can recover from mental illness. Just like you can heal from a physical disease with the right treatment.
  8. Going for a walk in nature will help cure a bad mood or feeling low. It will not cure depressive disorder. There is a big difference between feeling depressed and suffering with major depressive disorder.  Please stop spreading simplistic memes, they do nothing but guilt those who are suffering.
  9. Related to the previous point: OCD is not being 'neat', it is debilitating condition and is far more complex than the stereotype of an overly tidy person. You do not have OCD if you have a neat house, you have OCD when cannot leave the house without scrubbing your hands raw or doing some other kind of time-consuming, life-interrupting ritual because you have an irrational fear. OCD can be life-destroying. Please stop spreading these phrases and memes, as they invalidate the true nature of this awful condition.
  10. If someone advises they are taking medication, you are not qualified to comment on the validity of that medication. Unless you are the board registered psychiatrist  treating that person.
  11. NEVER and I repeat NEVER, advise someone to stop taking their medication. I don't care what you have read on the internet or what book you have read, advising this can be incredibly dangerous. If someone tells you they are having side effects get them to a qualified medical doctor IMMEDIATELY.
  12. If someone confides in you that they have or have had a mental illness, do not judge. Support them. They are still the same great person you know, they are not 'crazy' or 'insane'. Don't gossip about their condition. They won't go mad and bring an axe to work and kill everyone. They probably think you care for them and need a little support. Gossiping, fear mongering and spreading nonsense based on stereotypes is the exact opposite of a caring person. If you have questions, ask them. If you need further information, check out the great websites I've listed below or talk to a medical professional.
  13. If someone comes to you and advises they are struggling, think they  have a mental disorder or are having severely negative thoughts, assist them to seek professional help. Most of us are not trained in the best procedures for mental health treatment, just as many of us aren't trained to perform surgery to keep someone alive in the event of organ trauma.
  14. Think about  your responses. Think about whether you are being dismissive. Think about how you would respond to a fellow human if they tell you they're struggling. If you are responding in a dismissive way or inciting guilt, ask yourself, would you dismiss someone who was bleeding or who had just broken a leg? If you answer yes, please keep these views to yourself and refer that person to one of the great resources below.

And with that rather strongly worded list, as I say farewell to a big week of initiatives and awareness,  I implore you - think about what you say and do in relation to mental illness. We all must ensure we don't stop at the hashtags. We all need to address the ingrained notions and the stereotypes with a passion to overturn them. We need to change our own perceptions around mental illness and act for the change. It begins with support not judgement between individuals. Only then can awareness have its true impact. 

Some excellent resources if you or anyone else is struggling is in need of support or would like to learn more:

Lifeline Crisis line: 13 11 14

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Other Nobel Prize

It's that time again - the awarding of the Nobel Prize. It's a once a year ceremony that honours the most excellent work in science, literature and economics.  It is the most coveted of scientific awards, and is reserved for those that make the moon shot, career defining discoveries. This prize rewards the discoveries that cure diseases, that change our understanding of space and time and that alter the course of humanity.  Most people have heard of the Nobel, and associate it with prestige, authority and the peak achievement of a scholar or researcher. The winners often go on to enjoy rock star status amongst not only their peers but also the general public. And so they should as the work they do defines fields, it saves lives and pushes the boundaries of human knowledge. It's the reward for those that make the leap and bounds, the grand discovers, the ones who write the principles in the textbooks. But along with all that ceremony, all the glamour, it all seems just a little bit....safe. You know it will be a big discovery that will win, and often the only surprise for experts in their field is who will win when. 

Most of us will never have one. Image: Wikipedia Commons

But there is another prize, deserving of as much publicity as the Nobel. And it's one that scientists should also aspire to win. It's far more humble and doesn't come with prestige or big prize money, but it highlights the quirks of science. It's the Ig Nobel. A couple of weeks ago the 2016 awards were announced, and once again I was reminded of why I love this award, and feel it is important to science beyond a few laughs.

The Ig Nobel I feel, began as a bit of joke. It was meant to pick out the obscure, the pedantic and the near silly research that is overlooked and often buried in the masses of published articles, and allow researchers to have a bit of a giggle at themselves. It was started as a parody of the Nobel - while the Nobel is all about the big discoveries that move the world, the Ig Nobel rewards the exact opposite. It's about finding the most tedious,tiny result that matters only to the most specialised.  But the Ig Nobels have moved beyond a few laughs and highlighting just how obscure discovery can be.  This award is rapidly turning into something else with a bit more meaning. It's becoming a reflection on the reality of most of science and is a yearly celebration of the less glorious science. The  reality of science is that most research isn't big grand discoveries; it's a gradual, tedious piece by piece collection of knowledge.  It's three step forward, and two back. It's people who spend their lives engrossed by tiny steps in an enzymatic pathway, or a beetle found only on a tiny island or a motion of a planet lightyears away. The Ig Nobels represent all that is real about discovery. 

Finally, an award that represents most researchers. Image: IgNobel website

This year's Ig Nobel awards have once again highlighted questions we've all pondered, and the often obscure things that some people tackle as their life's work. The Ig Nobel motto is "designed to make you laugh, then think", and really I believe, more research needs to apply this motto. Once you get past the initial randomness or hilarity of a question, you realise there's actually a lot more depth there, and that seemingly silly or odd questions can produce surprising data. Big ideas do drive the overall scene, but the devil is in the detail, and so science moves slowly. Big ideas are great, but they aren't the reality of research. People need to know this, and appreciate it and sometimes the small and odd can have big answers or unexpected applications, and what better way to highlight this than an award that makes people laugh? The Ig Nobel prizes are therefore, important to public awareness of science, promotion of discovery and encouraging curiosity

While the Nobel prizes represent the big movers and shakers, these are effectively the 1% of the research world. The other 99% are collecting those tiny bits of knowledge that make the collective body of science, and thing is, they are equally vital, and they go hand in hand with the big discoveries. While it's important to have grand moves, without filling in the details, without the little bits of knowledge we never get a collective body of knowledge, we never confirm, and those leaps and bounds have no springboard. Those details, those random finds, they also deserve recognition.  The Ig Nobels represent the truth of science in all its obscurity, hilarity, frustration and brilliance.  

This is an award I think all of us scientists should aspire to. The Ig Nobels represent all that is great about research - odd questions, delving into the unknown, and having fun along the way. It's an award that inspires creativity and a being a little off beat, thus bringing a little fun to rigours of research. It is another way we can show the public the realities of science, and that it's not big leaps and bounds, but small and slow. But despite how it sounds, there's a lot of joy and beauty in that too.  And we have to face it, most of us scientists will never come close to taking a place on the Nobel stage. While it's nice to dream, we have to exist in reality. The random questions we ask ourselves are much more likely to result in an Ig Nobel than our chances of all making huge discoveries that change the scope of a scientific discipline. So for scientists, the Ig Nobel is important, it represents why we do science, and sometimes we need to be reminded that there is fun in discovery. Even better,  because it is so random really anybody can win, as the only requirements are that the research makes you laugh and it makes you think. Definitely easier than wrangling a Nobel committee member to nominate you! 

So remember, no question is pointless. The Ig Nobel prizes highlight even the most obscure of questions can lead to awards, and that the tedious daily grind that makes up the majority of research can be celebrated.  No question, no matter how obscure, is truly off limits.

And just in case you are not convinced about how great the Ig Nobel prize is, I'll let the research speak for itself, with one of my favourite winners.  
The Ig Nobel prize for Biology in 2011 was awarded to group who discovered jewel beetles (found in Western Australia) have a major case . It turns out the male beetles have a problem with how they perceive reality, and were mistaking the bumps on the bottom of beer bottles for female beetles, and were copulating with the bottle. But it didn't end there, the males actually had a preference for the bumps, and would refuse move even when attacked. This literally was a real world case of beer goggles. The researchers published and shortly after the bumps on beer bottles disappeared, though it's not confirmed whether the bottle manufacturers were concerned their design might lead to declining populations of the beetle, or it was just a coincidence. Sometimes what appears obscure, in fact, can have real world implications. Without those researchers who decided to examine just  what the jewel beetle was up to, who knows? We may have lost another species to extinction for a very obscure reason. You can read all about this awesome piece of work here, and here, and here.  

So I offer congratulations to both the winners of the 2016 Nobel prizes and the 2016 Ig Nobel prizes. You're both, although in very different ways, equally valuable to the scientific community. 

For more on both awards:

The Other Nobel Prize

It's that time again - the awarding of the Nobel Prize. It's the once a year ceremony that honours the most excellent work in science, literature and economics.  It is the most coveted of scientific awards, and is reserved for those that make the moon shot, career defining discoveries. The type of discoveries that cure diseases, that change our understanding of space and time and that alter the course of humanity.  Most people have heard of the Nobel, and associate it with prestige, authority and the peak achievement of a scholar or researcher. The winners often go on to enjoy rock star status amongst not only their peers but also the general public. And so they should as the work they do defines fields, it saves lives and pushes the boundaries of human knowledge. It's the reward for those that make the leap and bounds, the grand discovers, the ones who write the principles in the textbooks. But along with all that ceremony, all the glamour, it all seems just a little bit....safe. You know it will be a big discovery that will win, and often the only surprise for experts in their field is who will win when. 

Most of us will never have one. Image: Wikipedia Commons

But there is another prize, deserving of as much publicity as the Nobel. And it's one that scientists should also aspire to win. It's far more humble and doesn't come with prestige or big prize money, but it highlights the quirks of science. It's the Ig Nobel. A couple of weeks ago the 2016 awards were announced, and once again I was reminded of why I love this award, and feel it is important to science beyond a few laughs.

The Ig Nobel I feel, began as a bit of joke. It was meant to pick out the obscure, the pedantic and the near silly research that is overlooked and often buried in the masses of published articles, and allow researchers to have a bit of a giggle at themselves. It was started as a parody of the Nobel - while the Nobel is all about the big discoveries that move the world, the Ig Nobel rewards the exact opposite. It's about finding the most tedious,tiny result that matters only to the most specialised.  But the Ig Nobels have moved beyond a few laughs and highlighting just how obscure discovery can be.  This award is rapidly turning into something else with a bit more meaning. It's becoming a reflection on the reality of most of science and is a yearly celebration of the less glorious science. The  reality of science is that most research isn't big grand discoveries; it's a gradual, tedious piece by piece collection of knowledge.  It's three step forward, and two back. It's people who spend their lives engrossed by tiny steps in an enzymatic pathway, or a beetle found only on a tiny island or a motion of a planet lightyears away. The Ig Nobels represent all that is real about discovery. 

Finally, an award that represents most researchers. Image: IgNobel website

This year's Ig Nobel awards have once again highlighted questions we've all pondered, and the often obscure things that some people tackle as their life's work. The Ig Nobel motto is "designed to make you laugh, then think", and really I believe, more research needs to apply this motto. Once you get past the initial randomness or hilarity of a question, you realise there's actually a lot more depth there, and that seemingly silly or odd questions can produce surprising data. Big ideas do drive the overall scene, but the devil is in the detail, and so science moves slowly. Big ideas are great, but they aren't the reality of research. People need to know this, and appreciate it and sometimes the small and odd can have big answers or unexpected applications, and what better way to highlight this than an award that makes people laugh? The Ig Nobel prizes are therefore, important to public awareness of science, promotion of discovery and encouraging curiosity

While the Nobel prizes represent the big movers and shakers, these are effectively the 1% of the research world. The other 99% are collecting those tiny bits of knowledge that make the collective body of science, and thing is, they are equally vital, and they go hand in hand with the big discoveries. While it's important to have grand moves, without filling in the details, without the little bits of knowledge we never get a collective body of knowledge, we never confirm, and those leaps and bounds have no springboard. Those details, those random finds, they also deserve recognition.  The Ig Nobels represent the truth of science in all its obscurity, hilarity, frustration and brilliance.  

This is an award I think all of us scientists should aspire to. The Ig Nobels represent all that is great about research - odd questions, delving into the unknown, and having fun along the way. It's an award that inspires creativity and a being a little off beat, thus bringing a little fun to rigours of research. It is another way we can show the public the realities of science, and that it's not big leaps and bounds, but small and slow. But despite how it sounds, there's a lot of joy and beauty in that too.  And we have to face it, most of us scientists will never come close to taking a place on the Nobel stage. While it's nice to dream, we have to exist in reality. The random questions we ask ourselves are much more likely to result in an Ig Nobel than our chances of all making huge discoveries that change the scope of a scientific discipline. So for scientists, the Ig Nobel is important, it represents why we do science, and sometimes we need to be reminded that there is fun in discovery. Even better,  because it is so random really anybody can win, as the only requirements are that the research makes you laugh and it makes you think. Definitely easier than wrangling a Nobel committee member to nominate you! 

And just in case you are not convinced about how great the Ig Nobel prize is, I'll let the research speak for itself, with one of my favourite winners.  The Ig Nobel prize for Biology in 2011 was awarded to group who discovered jewel beetles (found in Western Australia) have a major case . It turns out the male beetles have a problem with how they perceive reality, and were mistaking the bumps on the bottom of beer bottles for female beetles, and were copulating with the bottle. But it didn't end there, the males actually had a preference for the bumps, and would refuse move even when attacked. This literally was a real world case of beer goggles. The researchers published and shortly after the bumps on beer bottles disappeared, though it's not confirmed whether the bottle manufacturers were concerned their design might lead to declining populations of the beetle, or it was just a coincidence. Sometimes what appears obscure, in fact, can have real world implications. Without those researchers who decided to examine just  what the jewel beetle was up to, who knows? We may have lost another species to extinction for a very obscure reason. You can read all about this awesome piece of work here, and here, and here.  

So I offer congratulations to both the winners of the 2016 Nobel Prizes and the 2016 Ig Nobel prizes. You're both, although in very different ways, equally valuable to the scientific community. 

For more on both awards: