It’s a miracle(berry)!

There’s a molecule called miraculin and as the name suggests, it’s quite miraculous. The molecule is a glycoprotein, meaning it has both amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) and oligosaccharides (sugars). It’s extracted from the fruit of the Synsepalum dulcificum plant, which is native to West Africa.

Even though the molecule is part-sugar, it does not taste sweet. But it does something funky with your taste buds: if you eat a miracle berry and thus expose your tongue to miraculin, the molecule binds to the sweetness receptors. If you then eat something sour, it will taste sweet instead.

The exact mechanism is still unknown, but the molecule changes your taste perception by ensuring sweetness receptors are activated by acids. For about an hour, sour-tasting foods are weirdly sweet.

Now you can buy a “strip” of miracle berry pills, which comes with a ticket for a “flavor trip” and looks a little bit like drugs.

A ticket for "Flavour Tripping"
One trip to flavor town, please (adapted from here because I forgot to take a picture.)

Putting the miracle to the test

Guess what we did? Of course, we put it to the test!

Sour foods: balsamic vinegar, sour cream, strawberries, orange slices, lemon slices, lime slices, tomato slices, granny smith apples, chili pepper and cream cheese.
On the menu: everything sour

As promised, everything sour tasted sweet! Here’s an overview of what we tried:

  • Balsamic vinegar already has some sweetness to it, but with miraculin there was nothing sour to taste. Even though my mouth was still reacting to the acid, I could not taste it! On another occasion, I had also tasted white vinegar, which really burned my tongue even though it didn’t taste sour.
  • The citrus fruits all tasted like a very sweet orange! Almost unbearably sweet, to be honest. Lemon juice (the kind that comes in a bottle) tasted like a lemon candy: a little sour but with enough sweetness to easily take a shot.
  • The Granny Smith apple slices tasted like a non-Granny-Smith apple, as you might expect.
  • Strawberries tasted like you’ve put some extra sugar on them, which I can tell you is quite delicious. Even more delicious: a strawberry with some cream cheese. Instant strawberry cheese cake! And a strawberry with sour cream that tastes just like whipped cream? Yum!
Strawberry and a dollop of cream cheese
100x better than what you can buy at the cheesecake factory.
  • The tomato wasn’t really that special.
  • A kiwi tasted like a golden kiwi, which already tastes softer and sweeter than a green kiwi. Makes total sense.
  • Bitter flavors are also changed. For example, tonic water tastes pretty much like sprite. And grapefruit tastes sweet, though you can still “feel” the bitterness.
  • Finally, spicy things change taste too. A nibble from a chilli pepper made my mouth burn but without tasting the burn. Weird.

It was a very interesting experience, or flavor trip if you will. But as a fan of sour – I always eat the slice of lime or lemon in my drink – I prefer the world being a little less sweet.

Because you made it to the end, here’s a bonus: a stupid picture of me eating a very sweet-tasting lemon!

Lemon-peel-smile
Yum

What even are cats?

Cats are strange. They constantly seem to be plotting to kill you or to take over the world. They lend their name to quantum physics thought experiments or grinning characters from children’s tales. They come up with creative yet actually very annoying ways to brighten your day, and they only participate in science experiments when they feel like it.

Cats are strange and the scientific community at least agrees on this fact. A 2014 study wondered what the physical nature of cats was, asking the very important question: are cats solid or fluid?*

Fluid dynamics for some very fluid cats.

Marc-Antoine Fardin used a scientific approach to answer the question “Can a Cat Be Both a Solid and a Liquid?”

Here was his conundrum:
Cat’s are generally assumed to be solid. You know, you can touch them and they feel pretty solid. But on the other hand, cat’s fit into really small spaces and can seemingly adjust their form to the container they are in – a property usually attributed to fluids. This is commonly known in internet circles as I fits, I sits.”

A kitten fitting in a wine glass to illustrate that cats can fit into any small space.
Who needs a glass of whine when you can drink fur?
(Image credit: unknown)

The author takes a rheological approach (rheology = the study of flow of matter) to try to differentiate between whether the deformation of a cat is solid deformation or fluid flow. Solids can be deformed, especially if they are soft. Think Play-Doh, which can take any shape while keeping the same volume as opposed to honey, which can also take any shape while keeping the same volume but can be poured.

To me, “Can a cat be poured?” is the question worth asking, and this might be difficult to test without ending up with a lot of scratches.

Reading the paper, I was starting to think the author didn’t take his research very seriously (among his acknowledgements he thanks two people – or cats, I don’t know – for “providing a reliable technique to load Felis catus in different geometries: 1.Bring an empty box; 2. Wait.”). That said, studying the physical nature of cats could bring us closer to understanding the nature of matter itself. More recent experiments are promising:

It seems that the duality of cats extends beyond dead or alive.


Source:
On the Rheology of Cats,” Marc-Antoine Fardin, Rheology Bulletin, vol. 83, 2, July 2014, pp. 16-17 and 30.

* The study won the 2017 Ig Nobel prize for Physics. The prize awarded to science that first makes you laugh and then makes you think. To be honest, it makes you think that the whole thing was a joke in the first place. It probably was.

Some tall stories

It is no secret that I’m a fan of giraffes. I have said this before, but I feel a certain sense of kinship with them. You know. Tall. Clumsy. Slightly derpy looking.

I was reminded of this when I found an old t-shirt on the bottom of my t-shirt shelf (yes, I have a t-shirt shelf. I’m incredibly organized. *ahem humblebrag ahem*). As you could have guessed, it has a giraffe on it. And that reminded me that I know a lot of random giraffe factoids.

So here are some tall stories, literally.

Giraffe Factoid Numero Uno:

Giraffes are about 2 meter (which is like 6ft6″ I think? Get with the metric, people!) tall at birth, making them worlds tallest baby and also the envy of all the guys on dating apps.

Which is still pretty deep actually.
(comic by Edward Steed for the NewYorker)

Giraffe Factoid II:

No two giraffes have exactly the same spot pattern. Basically, their spots are a bit like human fingerprints. This is very useful for giraffe-scientists – also known as girafologists (not really) – because it can help them recognize their study subjects easily without having to check for toe prints every time.

Fabulous, and unique!

Giraffe Factoid Number Three:

Giraffes’ tongues can be up to 50 cm (20 inches?) long. *insert another tinder joke here*

This long tongue helps them eat. Giraffes binge on acacia leaves, which unfortunately grow on thorny trees. Thanks to the long tongue, they can reach around the thorns and get to the tasty leaves without getting a scratched tongue!

Their tongue is also blue-black-purple in color, because it has a lot of melanin. This is probably to protect giraffe tongues from sunburn.

Nahnahnahnah Nah Nah. The [sun and the thorns] can’t get me!

Giraffe Factoid Number 4:

Ironically, many giraffes have a fear of heights. I think this is why I identify so strongly with them… I too am tall and get dizzy even when just standing.

Spotted outside a bar in Brisbane. Hey, did I ever tell you I went to Australia?

Giraffe Factoid Number now-for-real-number-four

Male giraffes test a female’s fertility by tasting her urine.

On the subject of urine, did you know that early pregnancy tests relied on… frogs? In the late 20s, a South African researcher discovered that if you injected certain hormones in a certain frog (Xenopus laevis), they would start ovulating. These hormones are also present in the urine of pregnant woman. With that, frogs became the first reliable pregnancy test!

Giraffe Factoid Number Funf

If you have read Harry Potter, or any other British literature aimed at teens, you might think that necking means snogging. Which means kissing, the French way. But in the giraffe world, necking means smacking another giraffe with your neck. It looks scary.

Hey, did you know that giraffes have the exact same number of neck vertebrae as humans? Their just a lot bigger. And presumably stronger, if they can do all that necking.

Image result for giraffe necking gif
And now… neck. No, that’s not what I meant!

Giraffe Factoid Number Final-One

Giraffes are awesome. And if you don’t agree, well, that’s just your opinion! (The giraffes being awesome thing is totally objective.)

I’m a model and you know what I mean

Wait, what do I mean?

It’s perhaps a bit of a stereotype, but scientists don’t always know how to talk to non-scientists. To be completely honest, scientists don’t always know how to talk to other scientists! This can partially be attributed to the use of jargon – lingo that is used by a specific group of people that is difficult for people outside that group to understand.

Let me give an example.

If you look up the word “model”, Mirriam-Webster gives 14 different definitions; that’s already cause for misunderstandings without any science coming in!

Meaning number one: “I’m too sexy for my shirt!”

model noun [ mod·​el \ ˈmä-dᵊl ]
9 : one who is employed to display clothes or other merchandise //has appeared as a model in ads for swimsuits

In every-day, fashion lingo, a model is someone who shows off clothes or other merchandise on billboards, in magazines, on the catwalk, in tv ads, etc.

This version of the word model is probably not what any scientist means when they are talking their model. Except maybe if their bragging about that “model they dated back in college,” but we were all dating models then, weren’t we?

Image result for dating a model meme
I don’t believe you, Leo

Meaning number two: To see what cannot be seen

model noun [ mod·​el \ ˈmä-dᵊl ]
11: a description or analogy used to help visualize something (such as an atom) that cannot be directly observed

Some things we can’t really take a picture of. Or even if we can, it’s difficult to gather any meaningful information from the picture. A model of that thing can help; such as a model of an atom, or our solar system, or the universe. Such a model is usually simplified to allow clearer understanding, and as a result, it is never 100% accurate.

For example, the model of the atom has gone through many iterations and has become more representative of the physical reality (in so far as we understand it). That doesn’t mean that older models are wrong, they’re often just insufficient. For many purposes, the Bohr model is enough to explain the formation of bonds and many aspects of physics and chemistry even though the quantum model is more details, and is needed to describe more advanced principles (like the types of bonds).

Hovertext: J.J. Thompson won a Nobel Prize for his work in electricity in gases, but was unfairly passed over for his “An atom is plum pudding, and plum pudding is MADE of atoms! Duuuuude.” theory.
From xkcd

Meaning number three: To the computer!

model noun [ mod·​el \ ˈmä-dᵊl ]
12: a system of postulates, data, and inferences presented as a mathematical description of an entity or state of affairs
alsoa computer simulation based on such a system (e.g. climate models
)

But not the type (i.e. model) of your computer. Wait. This is confusing.

The model of your computer might be 80NW. But a computer model – or a computer simulation – is a mathematical representation of a system and nowadays those mathematical representations are often running within a computer (because they can do math faster). Basically, a computer model/simulation is a program that is used to predict (hopefully) useful information based on a number of equations (or from learning data in the case of machine learning) that have been predefined.

In my PhD, I created a computer model for how ultrasound interacts with tissue. I told the program the properties of the ultrasound wave (its frequency, its shape, etc.); the properties of the tissue (size and shape, but also how stiff the tissue is); and the boundary conditions (how big the experiment was). After letting it run for some time, it would give me information back that I could use to understand this interaction better and compare with results from physical experiments.

Here is the incredibly useful test model I ran of an ultrasound wave (coming in from the left) interacting with a penguin. Image from PZFlex.

Computer models are very useful. Sometimes we would have to run experiments that are not possible to do physically, due to lack of resources or time or any other reason. Running a computer model is relatively cheap. In other cases, we are trying to make predictions on what will happen in the future, trying to do experiments on the unknown. An example of that is climate models.

Meaning number four:

model noun [ mod·​el \ ˈmä-dᵊl ]
14: ANIMAL MODEL an animal sufficiently like humans in its anatomy, physiology, or response to a pathogen to be used in medical research in order to obtain results that can be extrapolated to human medicinealso a pathological or physiological condition that occurs in such an animal and is similar to one occurring in humans

We are complex organisms, with a bunch of different types of organs and different types of cells that have a bunch of different processes going on at a bunch of different times. Sometimes, researchers can use cell lines – these are cells that have been isolated (often decades ago) and immortalized (they can be grown in petridishes and cultured for quite some time in said petridishes) to study biological processes and the effects of potentially new drugs. But these isolated cells never give the whole picture (because they are so isolated), and sometimes animal models are needed for the next phase of genetic studies, cancer research, or drug development.

So unlike what I picture in my mind when I hear “animal model”, this does not mean mice in the bikini special. Rather, certain animals that have traits that mimic a human condition or disease in such a way that research is meaningful. Whether it is ethical or not – that is a whole other discussing but just let me say that there are lot of regulations and the principles of the 3Rs (Replacement, Reduction and Refinement) are enforced in any proper lab conducting experiments using animal models.

The other note to make is that animal models don’t always give us the full information either. Again, it’s a model, An approximation. But since human experimentation is – well – inhumane, that’s often the only way to study genes and test drugs in a working-body-context.

A note on scientific theories

I don’t remember where I read this but: science theories are models for how the world works. In other words, like any model, they are not perfect! But they are a great way to try and understand the world better with our fairly limited brain capacity*. The fact that they are not perfect is actually really exciting: there is always more to discover, more to learn, more to understand!

In any case, if anyone tells you that they’re a model, if you know what they mean, you might want to ask them to specify… Just to avoid confusion.


*If you find this offensive, remember I’m mostly offending myself.

Definitions taken directly from Mirriam-Webster dictionary.

When time is lagging

I’ve traveled quite a bit in my life. As a young girl, it wouldn’t bother me much. I would be able to sleep on the plane, or if I didn’t, I would bounce back from that sleep deprivation easily. But now, the combination of nearing my 30s (oh no!), being tall and therefore very uncomfortable in a plane, and general annoyance towards air travel, have made me start to feel the lags. Unfortunately.

Why do we get jet lagged?

Jet lag occurs due to disruption of the circadian rhythm of your body after you have traveled a long distance from east-to-west or west-to-east. The normal circadian rhythm – your built-in sleep-wake cycle – is a little over 24 hours long, pretty much tuned to the normal duration of the earth spinning around its axis. By traveling rapidly along the east-west line (or the other way around), you essentially cut a normal day short, or extend it, unnaturally. And that messes up your rhythm and consequentially some of your functioning. Often, this is also paired with fatigue, because sleeping on a plane is very uncomfortable (even if you’re not 1m84).

Common symptoms include trouble falling asleep or waking up, headaches, irritability, problems/disruption with your normal digestion and annoyance at air travel.

East by West

For me, flying west is always easier than flying east. Flying west feels like extending my day with a few hours, I just go to sleep really late. But flying east is like having two very short days with a bad night in between. [edited – see below]

However, last week was the exception. I flew west, a 6 hour flight with a three-hour time change. Unfortunately, there was also a 4 hour delay. As a result, I didn’t get home until 3 am. The next day, I felt miserable: sleep-deprived and annoyed, I had zero mental capacity to concentrate. Actually, I felt like I’d had a great night out partying – except that I hadn’t.

How to avoid a jet lag

It’s not really possible to avoid. The internet recommends only sleeping on the plane if it fits within the destination’s sleep-wake schedule. Doesn’t help me much;I find it very hard to sleep on planes [Side note: did you know that the background noise in a plane is on average 85 db? That’s about the same noise as a food blender, and it’s recommended not to be exposed to this level of noise for more than 8 hours a day]. Professional athletes use light therapy, using special glasses that light up according to the new circadian schedule, to reduce their jet lag.

Definitely, it helps to stay hydrated and limit light exposure. Though that seems to be valid advice in general (you know, stay hydrated during the day and limit screen time to sleep better!).

You can also just fly north-south instead. No change in time zones; no jet lag! Unfortunately, all my family lives eastwards.

Hungover, without the fun*

So, if you ever want to feel hungover without actually having that one drink too many the day before, go travel by plane! *

Comparison between a hangover and jet lag. Both have random hours that seemingly go lost, result in a blasting headache and lack of productivity, but a hangover is the result of a fun night (maybe, I don't approve drinking too much).
Artistic rendition of how I felt. I don’t know why I gave myself a fringe, haven’t had one in decades. Also, drink responsibly, people!

*Just to make it clear: drink responsibly! You can have fun without having that one drink too many (and the headache the day after), I promise!

**There are a whole lot of reasons not to travel by plane, mostly the impact on the climate and the environment, that are a lot better than “not getting a jet lag”. However, I realize that it is hypocritical for me to comment on environmental impact of plane travel when I resort to plane travel so often. I wrote this post because I felt hungover after a flight and had a badly-drawn doodle about it in mind. That’s all.

[Edit: initially said: For me, flying east is always easier than flying west. Flying east feels like extending my day with a few hours, I just go to sleep really late. But flying west is like having two very short days with a bad night in between. It seems that mixing up east and west is another symptom of jet lag!]

Forget diamonds, liquid crystals are a girl’s best friend!

A few months ago I lost my mood ring. Which is very discerning; I haven’t been able to tell what my mood is since then!

I was reminded of my lack of mood-reading device in Vancouver last weekend. I was in one of those fantasy-merch shops that sells lots of dragon statues. I was admiring their collection of mood rings and wondering whether I should buy a new, when I suddenly realized I didn’t actually know how mood rings work.

My friend and I used to have full conversations consisting of pictures of our mood rings. “It’s really cold out” was a picture of a black or brown ring.

To the google!

Thermochromic materials

Mood rings don’t actually tell what your mood is (sorry). They do give some indication of your skin temperature, which I guess is slightly related to your mood but probably more related to the weather and how cold you’refeeling. Created in 1975 by New Yorkers Josh Reynolds and Maris Ambats, mood rings were a fad in the 1970s, and probably again in the 1990s if I remember correctly. To be honest, they’ve never really left the mystic thingumabob shops, or souvenir shops (as you might be able to tell by the Celtic knot design in the picture above; I bought the rings for my friend and me in a Scottish souvenir shop).

The change-changing part of a mood ring is a thermochromic material, i.e. a material that changes color (chroma -χρῶμα) due to a change in temperature (thermosθερμός).*

There are different examples of thermochromic materials and a number of different applications. Those t-shirts that change in color if you press your hand on them. Those cups that change color when containing a hot liquid. Those little thermometer rulers that change color if you hold them in your hand. And mood rings.

Liquid crystals

The type of material in a mood ring, that changes color according to changing temperature, is a liquid crystal.

If you had some intro to chemistry at some point, you might remember hearing that crystals have a very organized structure, with atoms (or molecules) forming a lattice. Perhaps you did an experiment where you made salt crystals by evaporating water from salt water in a dish. But you probably remember that crystals were not liquid.

Then what are liquid crystals? Basically, it’s a state of matter which lies in between liquids and crystals. Usually, liquid crystal molecules are elongated, so depending on their packing they have more crystal-like properties (dense packing) or more liquid properties (looser packing). Depending on their “phase”, i.e. structural organisation and packing, the optical properties of liquid crystals change.

Liquid crystals consist of elongated moleduces that change their optical properties depending on their organization. Image from: https://summerofhpc.prace-ri.eu/lost-in-a-liquid-crystal/

The molecules in a liquid crystal can take up different degrees of order:

  1. No order; basically the material is a liquid with properties of a fluid. (A in the very professional sketch below.)
  2. Some order; the molecules sort of align in the same direction, but not along a plane (B).
  3. More order; the molecules start organizing themselves along planes (C).
  4. Full order; all molecules are neatly arranged in a regular lattice structure. Wait, this is a full crystal! (D)
I’m getting into the habit of creating illustrations on origami paper.**

As stated, with changing orientation and order, the optical properties change, similar to the collagen from a previous post. Depending on how organized the molecules are, different light wavelengths are reflected by the mood rind “gem”. In other words: the warmer the mood ring gem gets, the less organized the liquid crystal molecules are, and that causes a shift in color.

So if you’re feeling unsure about your mood, mood rings don’t actually help, but I’ve found that they are quite a conversation starter. But now, instead of handing your ring to whomever exclaims “Oh cool! A mood ring! Can I try it on?“, you can also explain exactly how it (doesn’t) work.

I just bought myself a new one. ***


Cover image credit: Kaszynski lab

* Using any excuse to use the Greek alphabet for something other than fraternity names. I now walk to work through Fraternity Lane (not the actual name), so I’m constantly reminded of the letter φ.

** Bonus pic – origami flowers from those same pieces of paper:

*** Bonus pic 2 – New ring!

Inking Science

A few months ago, my friend Vale asked me to collaborate with her on a project. I remember it going something along the lines of:*

Vale: “So, I’m working on this project and was wondering if you wanted to be part of it.”

Me: “Yeah, of course.”

Vale: …

Me: “Wait, what is the project?”

Say “yes” and ask questions later

Though probably not valid for every situation, I knew that in this case, I would be fine to say yes before knowing what I’d said yes to. If you’ve read any of my other stuff, you know that I’ve done various “scicomm”** projects like developing a “Build a LEGO-microscope” workshop and organizing a lecture series called “The Science of SciFi”. These were both in collaboration with Vale (and occasionally other people). She’s also the one who got me into Bright Club!

It seems that we work well together. And working together on a new project (without even knowing what it was), sounded like a lot of fun.

Art-meets-science

By now, I (obviously) know what the project is. It all started with #inktober, an art challenge that challenges illustrators to draw something using the medium of ink every day for a whole month (can you guess which?). Vale took up that challenge, and made it even more of a challenge by deciding to bundle her illustrations in a book.

Every drawing is based on a scientist*** that she considers a personal inspiration and is linked to a word from the prompt list. She’d post the result with a short explanation of why she chose that scientist for that prompt. Sometimes they were pretty obvious (at least to me, of course “stretch” is about D’Arcy Thompson!), some rather funny.

Image result for inktober prompt list 2018
Official #inktober prompt list.

And then I come in.

Inspired by her drawing, I write a short text to go along with it. Sometimes it’s an anecdote. Sometimes it’s a quote. Sometimes it’s a short story about the scientist’s life. I try to make it as informative, engaging, unique and fun as I can.

… and then we have a book

Well, almost. We have the drawings. And we have the stories. And now we have a Kickstarter campaign to actually turn it into a book!

Sketch of what the book is going to look like.

It’s kind of awkward for me to sit here and write about a book I’m involved in, trying to get it made, aka trying to get the campaign funded. Like really, really awkward. So I’ll only do it once****:

Every little helps. Pledging helps, obviously, but spreading the word does too. If you like science, engineering, and math; and if you like amazing art; and if you like stories (and if maybe you also like us)… please share our project and help us make this book a reality!

Both Vale and I have found inspiration in these scientists, and we have found inspiration working on this book together. Hopefully, it will inspire you too.

*end of sappy book promo – I’ll be back next week with the usual science, nerdiness and hopefully some “Eureka!”s*

Just to remind you ;), you can find the Kickstarter page here:
https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1950391618/inking-science

*Severely paraphrasing. This was months ago. I might have also dreamt it but on the other hand, this project is happening so I guess that means the conversation happened too.

** or “science communication”, which is the umbrella term I use for STEM-related outreach, workshops, talks, and other similar activities.

*** in the broad sense of the word. They could be mathematicians, or engineers, or inventors. Creative STEM-people if you will.

**** on this blog, to be clear. My other social media channels will be swamped! Like, I actually really care about this project and am super excited and want to see it happen!

All of the art work shown in this post is by Valentina, and within the #inkingscience project.

π

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One million first digits of π: https://www.piday.org/million/

Find a date in π (like a time date; not talking about πnder): http://www.mypiday.com/

Find your name in π: https://www.atractor.pt/cgi-bin/PI/pib27Search_vn.cgi

More fun with π: https://lab.open.wolframcloud.com/objects/user-a596dba9-5782-467e-ae66-047a9a819454/FunWithPi.nb#sidebar=compute

Eat some π (any bakery near you)

Lost for words

If you are one of my three regular readers (*hi*), you might have noticed that I’ve been trying to churn out a post every week. While this quantity-over-quality approach might not have always worked in my favor, it is helping me hone my writing skills and figure out what my niche is (or so I hope). It was partially inspired by James Clear, who talks a lot about how small changes can help you build good habits and eventually make big life changes.

It’s not always easy though. Even with a steady list of ideas (I have around 13 “drafts” with random ideas and topics to write about), I often find it hard to find inspiration. Take this week. What do I write about? Do I stay topical and write about the history of Valentine’s day; the fact that if a girl sees a robin on Valentine’s day, she will marry a sailor; or the chemistry of cuddle hormones?

Okay, Rachel Ignotofsky‘s graphics are so cool that I’m putting that in here anyway.

Or should I talk about the legacy of Opportunity, which is now lost to us after a sandstorm on Sol 5111 (June 10 last year)? It was trending on twitter all day yesterday, so it’s something people care about, right?

Or should I talk about the history of popcorn and how the first pop was supposedly accidental? Accidental heating of some kernels in a bag must have given someone a heart attack.

I feel you, poppy.

But sometimes, I just don’t feel it. I don’t always feel like putting in the research I’d like to do to make a “quality” post (it’s easy to rewrite a Wikipedia article or someone else’s blog post, but it just feels wrong). I’m not always in the mood to be my witty self (*ahem, #humblebrag*) or I feel like the jokes I am making, are the result from inside jokes that only one person will get.

Wait, is this what writer’s block feels like?

Writer’s block has been around for ages but wasn’t officially called “writer’s block” until 1947. Creatives have always struggled with periodic dips in inspiration. Writer’s block leads to writers giving up on writing altogether. It causes musicians to hide from the world for years, and cartoonist to not create anything for decades. There are lists and lists available on the internet on how to overcome it, over 4000 books written about it (not by writers in a block though), scientific research conducted about the what and the how and the why.

Always use Calvin and Hobbes cartoons for anything.

None of this information actually helps me though. I’ve noticed a pattern in my writing motivation. When I have to write for school or work – like when I was writing for my PhD thesis – all other types of writing will turn into more of a task. Apparently, my brain can handle only so much writing. So for this week, I’m putting quantity over quality, and I’ll go back to writing that technical report that’s due soon.

Hey, did you know that Penicillin was introduced to the market on Valentine’s Day?


Cover photo from Lego Grad Student

All info about Writer’s block from Wikipedia. Sue me.

Nap Time

I have a track record of falling asleep in inconvenient locations. Basically, if I’m sat down and not actively doing a physical or mental activity, I will doze off.

I fall asleep in the car – fortunately only when in the passenger seat. I fall asleep on the bus and on the train – often resulting in neck pain for the following days. I fall asleep during short plane trips, though not really during long ones – apparently trying to actually fall asleep counts as one of those mental activities that keep me awake.

A snap my “friends” once took of me dozing on a bus. I’m just glad they didn’t draw stuff on my face.

And I fall asleep during lectures and seminars.

I remember it starting in maybe my third year of undergrad, though probably I’ve been caught dozing during classes before [I distinctly remember seeing photographic proof for this, but I can’t find it anymore, so I guess that means it never happened]. To the hilarity of my classmates, and to my own horror and embarrassment, I was not able to stay awake.

Where to sit in class. Conclusion: it doesn’t matter, I’ll fall asleep anyway.

I was reminded of this recently when I attended the local grad seminar. The guy next to me was either accidentally prodding me just when I was dozing off, or was helpfully trying to nudge me awake. I still don’t know which one of the two it was, but because we never exchanged so much as a glance once the seminar was over, I presume it was just all an accidental coincidence. Or a coincidental accident.

I want to point out to everybody who as ever talked at me, that me falling asleep during a talk is not necessarily related to the amount of sleep I’d had, nor a reflection of the quality of the presentation (well, partially, I will elaborate on that in a minute*).

At some point, I even asked for help from a therapist. Her tips to stay awake included: wearing a rubber band on my arm to flick myself with (apparently, the acute pain would give me a short surge of adrenaline), eat something during class (but apples are kind of loud to chew on), or doodle.

It turned out that multitasking did help – a bit. For a little while. But even with elaborate note-taking, which wasn’t my forte – there are countless examples of lecture notes starting out optimistically during the first 15 minutes of class and then trailing off into nonsense and eventually just blank lines – and reading things on my phone – it always seemed a bit rude even though I was literally not paying full attention in order to pay more attention, nothing really worked. The few occasions where I remember staying awake, I either basically wrote a complete comedy set (needless to say, I actually didn’t pay attention to the speaker) or it was because the professor giving the lecture was exceptionally engaging to listen to.

And I really mean exceptionally engaging. Seriously, my demands are unreasonably high. That specific professor taught beginner quantum mechanics to a bunch of quasi-engineers. He just oozed interest in his subject, had just the right amount of quirkiness, and didn’t rely on powerpoint presentations. His classes were all chalk and blackboard. Not that chalk is a requirement for an engaging talk, but the fact that I had to take notes at the same speed as he was teaching, probably helped me stay alert. And awake.

Nevertheless, it seems that a lot of public speaking events in the scientific world, whether it’s lectures or conference talks, are notoriously sleep-inducing.

And the subject of many, many jokes.

While I realize my requirements for a talk that would keep me awake are unrealistic (I’ve been in talks that I genuinely found really interesting and still fell asleep), and I am in no way – I repeat: in no way – an expert in public speaking, I do have some suggestions on how to make your (scientific) talk just that tad more engaging**:

Tip number one – Be interested in what you are talking about. I know, that sounds really obvious, but the number of times you get the impression that the speaker doesn’t really believe in the things they are saying happens more than it should. I know that when I had to give talks about things I didn’t really care about, I definitely went into drone mode. I’m sorry for anybody who had to sit through that.

No, not this kind of drone. It would’ve been awesome if I’d literally turned into a drone. That would’ve woken people up.

Tip number two – Tell a story. Things are a lot more interesting to listen to if they have a beginning, a middle and an end. And some evil villain you had to fight (which could be a protocol that just wouldn’t go right, or that bug in your code, or your lack of general motivation). The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science gives workshops on using the power of narrative in scientific communication. You can still do the intro – methods – results – conclusion thing, just make it more of a story. Also, while you’re at it: be honest. If that experiment took months to get right, it’s okay to say so. Everyone in science has been through some kind of struggle to get data, but most people only show the shiny, polished end results. Every time someone showed some intermediate (failed) results in a talk, it’s gotten some laughs.

Tip number three – Experiment. Figure out what works for you. When I’ve had to give talks as a student for classes or during group meetings, which are generally all safe, I’ve treated it as an experiment. I’ve tried different presentation programs. I’ve tried not adding any text on my slides. The latter experiment failed miserably; I completely forgot what I was supposed to talk about, but luckily there was it was not a very important talk and the audience were all people I knew. Don’t try something completely new for your thesis talk, obviously; use “casual” presentations for experimentation.

“And this slide shows – uhm – random squiggles.” ***

Tip number four – Present a lot. Take every opportunity to practice. Try different types of settings. The only way to gain more confidence in presenting is to actually do it. I know, it sucks, but repetition actually works.

Tip number five – Be you. Add some personality to your talk. If you like to tell jokes, make a joke. If you enjoy adding a meme or two, just to it. Whatever floats your boat. The best talk I ever gave (in my *humble* opinion) involved me singing some songs about cancer and forces. At an actual conference. Obviously, the setting allowed for it, and I checked with the organizers first, but the response I got was overwhelming and a definite confidence boost. I took a risk to put some “me” in the talk, and it paid off.

Tip number six – This one is the most important one, I think. Keep it simple. Imagine you have to give the talk to a to a bunch of middle-schoolers. You want it to be engaging, you want your research to sound cool, you don’t want to overdo it with jargon and acronyms and walls of text. Even if your audience isn’t actually a bunch of 12-year-olds, this still applies. Be engaging, don’t overcomplicate things, and tell your audience why your research matters! The same rule counts in writing, actually. You can check what “grade” your writing style is for on this site, for example, what I’ve written here is about at great eight (I’m glad, it would have been embarrassing if I didn’t adhere to my own rule!)

We don’t all have to be excellent public speakers. But we can all at least try to not be awful speakers, and we can definitely try to not be sleep-inducing speakers. Well, except if I’m in the audience, then it’s all futile.


* Not sure if it actually will be in a minute, it all depends on your reading speed.
** This list is in no way to be considered a guide on how to make a good presentation. There are plenty of those on the internet (usually they come down to: don’t put too much info in your talk, don’t use too much text – pictures speak louder than words, repeat your take-home message – maximum three main points, and some more things to that effect).
*** This picture, however, shows my excellent photoshop skills!