Friday, 30 July 2010

Do you get it? I don't.

Let me recap on the events in the political and justice systems of the UK and abroad in the last few weeks.

I'm not even going to rant. I'm just going to make a list.

The Government has decided that, upon being a hospital patient, we do not have the right to choose when or how we die. However, we do have the right to demand taxpayers' money - of which there is a massive shortage when it comes to, for example, much-needed surgery - for sugar pills from a multi-billion pound industry that have been shown not to work.

A letter from my friend @medtek, and Islington PCT's response, both rather sum things up.

(By the way, before Dr Nancy Malik et al accuse me, I am very balanced about homeopathy. Indeed I have supported it so far as to make a list of its dozens of successful mechanisms.)

This is not simply whinging about silly allocations of taxpayers' money in the UK - on an international level, as the Quackometer points out, the problem is a lot more serious. The blind eye Europe turns to pseudoscience is lethal to millions.

On the justice front, throwing eggs at a demonstration has landed a man in jail. Meanwhile, the same Crown Prosecution Service that has fined Paul Chambers £1000 and given him a criminal record for a silly tweet which not a single person took seriously will not even prosecute the policeman whose violence against Ian Tomlinson in 2009 was followed by his death minutes later.

There seems to be a huge amount of debate about exactly what happened to the bodily fluid which was drained from the body. Apparently the violence itself, a video of which is available here, was insufficient evidence, or something else which can be read as "quite all right in the eyes of the law".

I seriously don't get it.

Oh, and I wish @CrazyColours the best of luck with this tweet!

There is another case I'd like to write about, but I don't have the money or bravery to get sued by the organisation. Suffice to say that I am greatly looking forward to one of its victims of this particular attitude appearing at Skeptics in the Pub in Wales this autumn!

Speaking of suing, you probably already know what I think about the Simon Singh case and that of many others. Now let me introduce the latest libel hero: Luke Bozier, who has been forbidden by Tangent to say he doesn't like Gordon Brown's website.

However, turning to an international level, the Claimant in a perfectly justified case in America has lost. The grounds for her losing is that, according to the jury, merely being present at a nightclub is sufficient consent for a) sexual assault and b) show your breasts on film without your knowledge, let alone any pay.

Er . . . why?

There is, at least, a law against the practice of genital mutilation of children in this country. Yet this summer, between 500 and 2000 schoolgirls will - they think - go on holiday. The article about what actually happens to them, I should warn you, made me feel extremely sick and faint for a long time - I recommend fresh air, a glass of water, and a good angry and restoring chat with some friends after reading it.

If you don't want to read this, let me sum it up: it happens in several countries worldwide, especially Africa; it happens to British children; it causes horrendous physical and psychological damage; it is not required by any religion; the victims are not anaesthetised or even warned what will happen; the tools are seldom sterelised; the danger of it happening is not grounds for asylum in any European country; and not a single person has been prosecuted for doing it or allowing it to be done to a child in their care.

There seem to be an awful lot of prosecutions and libel cases going on for things people have written. But things which people do that put others' lives in danger, or indeed terminate them, seem to be getting off scot-free.

I think the system is: do what you like, just don't put it online? Am I anywhere near getting it yet?

With regard to genital mutilation (which is dangerous and damaging to both sexes), Noodlemaz has researched and written about it extremely well; and you can also support the Orchid Trust and the Addis Ababa Fistla Hospital.

My head and stomach are both now spinning, and I need to get away for a bit.

If you need cheering up, may I most respectfully refer you to Jack of Kent who in turn will respectfully refer you to The Reply Given in Arkell versus Pressdram?

Right. Food!

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Young Astronomers

Don't ask me why, but the Young Astronomers website has taken me on as a writer. They obviously haven't spotted my secret zimmer frame! (Well, of course they haven't, I hide it behind the computer screen.)

Anyway, just to let you know my first article is up. (They interviewed me a couple of days ago and you can find that here.) I have quite a few articles in mind, but the first I chose to write about was something that had been brewing vaguely in my mind for a while - misleading words in astronomy, such as planetary nebula and indeed the Big Bang.

The Young Astronomers are the most lovely bunch of young people I've had the fortune to come across, and that's coming from someone who really enjoyed teaching (including the troublemakers!). But I do hope the grown-ups will read it as well. For one thing, it's easy to underestimate how much teenagers can understand, but we often find them up there with lots of so-called "adult" ideas - which you'll certainly be finding there on the website. For another, as the Persian poet Sa'adi wrote, "Education makes old men's hearts young again". It drives me crazy that it's so hard to get into adult education - when so many adults are much keener to learn than many younger people who are forced, unsuitably, to stay in school. I expect many of these very same younger people later do want to learn . . . when perhaps it's too late. I do hope that with the rise of the Internet, nothing need be too late any more.

Thanks to the Young Astronomers for bringing me on board, and much more for the very important work you're doing! May you inspire the young and old to reach skywards.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Skeptical Jaunts

You've probably noticed that Skeptics in the Pub invariably takes place in a city. For us rural oiks living at the end of the world - at least, until we create the Skeptical Nomadic Circus - that means a bit of travelling. We're not the only ones, though: I know people on Twitter whose work shifts clash with their local Skeptic evenings, for example.

My solution to both is to take a couple of days off work when you can, and travel to several events taking place in quick succession! You can find a list of all Skeptics in the Pub events on the bottom right of Simon Perry's website. Train tickets are cheap if booked well in advance, and you don't have to stay at an expensive hotel - youth hostels are fine in my experience, and more often than not a nice skeptic will happily put you up. You could of course combine all this with any Galaxy Zoo meet-up or other science events. And visit all these various places you've been planning to visit for years, and throw in the odd museum or restaurant or whatever takes your fancy. I actually love this. I enjoy travelling alone, which gives me immense space and freedom, and it really doesn't work out that expensive. It also allows me to compare one Skeptics with another and see which ones I like best, as well as meet a great many excellent people.

Anyway, I've just got back from one of those jaunts. The first event was Talkfest, which was much talked about on Twitter including at the time. There was a large screen behind the panel, onto which all talkfest tweets appeared (transcript here) - some witty, some snide, some interesting. Excellent and fresher-than-this summaries are at Noodlemaz and Jon Butterworth's blogs - update: I have to add this brilliant and thought-provoking reaction from Stephen Curry. It also included very interesting cakes - chocolate, pink and green, with glittery icing! I hope our toilets don't get too sparkly. The chocolate ones were delicious, the pink decidedly odd. It was lovely to catch up with some Twitterers and meet others I'd only exchanged 140-character sentences with! It was a free event, and we were all issued with badges which gave our real names, our Twitter names and our workplaces. My workplace did not make much sense - I might put "Cardiff Skeptics" or "Galaxy Zoo" next time. I had a laugh with the girls about how we weren't supposed to be looking at each other's chests all the time. We were also asked, in the online form, to put our favourite blog; I put Jack of Kent, whose taking-apart of Gillian McKeith's latest weirdness and delicious dissection of Hackney Council's clumsy abuse of libel law I very strongly urge you to read - though that did not get onto our badges!

The subject was science blogging. The panel began by telling us about their favourite blogs. I was most gratified to note that two or three of the panel specifically mentioned "a great community" or "a civilised atmosphere" as a blog's special asset - it's not only Galaxy Zoo that appreciates that, then!

Alice Bell, the organiser, then opened the questions. These - and the subsequent talk - focussed heavily on "why"s, and little on "what"s and "how"s of blogging, so I think there's scope for another great evening. The first two, sent in by e-mail, were "Why do you blog?" and "What impact does your blogging have and how can you tell?" Profound reasons to blog included wanting to put information out into the public domain, and wanting to engage people with science who would like to be engaged but haven't the privilege to be involved.

We were encouraged not to let anyone tell us our blog was trivial. I was reminded of a wonderful e-mail I had nearly 18 months ago from one of my readers who went to the library and got out books about astronomy, which he'd never have done were it not for my writing. Ed Yong beat me hands down, though, with a story of a priest who left the Church to go and study particle physics!

Jack of Kent asked some delightfully provocative questions. We got to the point where the media came up - how they are often pushed with deadlines and have to make a story quickly, while a blog can admit not having an answer yet. (Now if that was relaxed in the media, science could be represented far better!) He asked: What is impact? Does it in fact drive the media, rather than follow it - that is to say, does the media sometimes follow up something from the blogosphere? There have certainly been cases - such as the Trafigura scandal and Simon Singh versus the BCA! The next question, towards the end of the evening, was even more fun: are science bloggers particularly different from other bloggers? History and law, for instance, should be doing exactly the same as science: constantly checking sources and evidence, as he was inspired to do by science blogs . . . Dr Petra pointed out that the general public doesn't know how peer review works. I didn't know, either, despite a four-year science degree, until the zookeepers were kind enough to explain it on the Galaxy Zoo Blog.

There was quite some discussion about the media - what it can and can't offer, how being edited is exceptionally helpful (and how blog comments are also helpful), and whether bloggers would benefit from media experience. David Waldock asked why science is not represented in "engagement" sections of newspapers, i.e. the agony aunt columns. There was then the question: Who would you trust to pay a science blogger? Dr Petra told us how much of her time blogging can take. Once you have enough readers, you find yourself using more and more of your personal time in obtaining references, answering questions - she would like it to be part of her job; but departments - including one she used to work in - can be openly hostile about their members having blogs. Going to conferences should be free, but she usually has to pay for childcare. There are PhD students who feel a duty to engage with the public and who end up cramming their writing at 1am. (I'm writing this at 2.30 a.m., but that's because I was tired earlier and didn't get round to it.) Dr Evan Harris disagreed that that is what scientists should spend their time doing - some may be great communicators, but others may be far better at research or teaching. Fair enough!

I spent the next day wandering around London. I met a Twitter friend for lunch, who is going to end up being interviewed on the Young Astronomers website hopefully soon - she used to work in zero gravity! Besides that, I went to the British Museum - an absolute must, I don't remember ever having gone before and it's mind-blowing. I'm going to have to go again, several more times, as I could never see let alone absorb the whole thing in one day. (That's one great thing about free museums - you can keep going back!)

So I followed it up with the Wellcome Collection which was decidedly weird. They're currently doing an exhibition on skin. I went up to a gallery which included the various things Henry Wellcome collected in his life, which - the sign said - included Japanese sex toys and Napoleon Bonaparte's toothbrush. Obviously I went off looking for both of these and was unable to contain my laughter at the little note that stood in the place of the latter: "Napoleon Bonaparte's toothbrush has been lent to a Dutch museum. We apologise for any inconvenience."

Sir Wellcome must have been a very eccentric and fascinating man - he did a great deal for medicine and seems to have collected all kinds of paraphernalia, which I hope his house was big enough to contain. But that paraphernalia also included, for example, a torture chair. Its seat was three blades, pointing upwards, as was its footrest. Its wood was lovingly decorated. I go cold thinking about it. (This is what I think of torture, if you're interested.)

Later in London, I saw seven rickshaws - I hadn't seen one of them outside Tintin and the Blue Lotus. I also did a bit of plane-watching. It always strikes me how slowly the low-flying ones seem to move across the sky. As if it takes several seconds for them to cover their own length - like a bicycle moving very, very slowly. Do they really move that slow, or is it a trick of our eyes? It suddenly occurred to me that if I compared them with something still, I could work it out. The ideal opportunity for this came with a particularly low-flying plane disappearing behind a wall. From its nose appearing to touch the brick to its tail took, I think, just over 1 second. I kept thinking of first contact, second contact and so on during a solar eclipse. The less ideal part of this opportunity was the fact that this occurred while I was crossing a road, but it was only a bicycle that nearly ran me over. Now I must find out how long a plane is, and watch several more (yes, from a safe place, I promise).

The second event of my travels was seeing Simon Singh speak at the Hay Festival in Bristol. I'd hoped to meet Hayley Stevens there, but something came up and she couldn't make it. I attempted (and failed, I fear) to cheer her up with texted reports, such as that Brian Cox's double works in the Old Vic theatre. It was lovely to meet Chutzpah84, anyway. I arrived early, not knowing how long it would take to get from the youth hostel to there, and bemused the bar staff by ordering coffee and later tea. I went and sat down in what I hoped was an unobtrusive spot, only to be warned that that was the book-signing table and someone might come and ask for my autograph any minute now! I was tempted, but just managed to resist. Simon himself then came past, and stopped right in front of me when a voice from a long way off cried "SIMON!" I got a chance to say a quick hello before someone rushed to him, threw his arms around him and said "I haven't seen you since you won!" I was delighted to be wearing my Keep Libel Laws out of Science T-shirt.

I think, though am not sure, that it was Simon's friend who introduced him on stage. This chap began by asking us if there were any of us who were not familiar with Simon's tussle with the BCA. Nobody raised a hand, which, as he joked, allowed us to get on with things faster! As he said, lots of people know what a great speaker Simon is, "but few people realise what a nice guy. The thing that's happened to him today that made him happiest is that he saw a seagull . . . . catching a mouse."

Simon gave a quick talk about the book he co-authored with Edzard Ernst, Trick or Treatment - and the thing that inspired him to write a book about alternative medicine, a BBC program from 2006. He showed us a clip of a lady in China having major open heart surgery - who was conscious. Her eyes were moving and aware, and her arms were covered with acupuncture needles. The claim was that the acupuncture was sufficient anaesthetic. To cut a long story short, after a great deal of investigation it turned out that she had been given a local anaesthetic and a massive cocktail of other drugs - but none of this was even hinted at, which to say the least gives the viewers a rather misleading impression.

The next part of the talk was, of course, on the BCA case - how, at every step, he'd had to consider throwing in the towel, and how the odds are stacked against the writer - but how much support he'd had from the science and blogging communities. He's likely to recover perhaps 80% of his costs; the time which he could have spent writing another book and enjoying himself, he will never get back. He is concerned that for every libel case that makes it to trial, there will be a great many more that never go to trial because the writer caves in and apologises (so as to be out of thousands rather than tens or hundreds of thousands); and for every case like this, there will be dozens more that never get published or even never get written due to self-censorship from the worry. The editor of the BMJ, he tells us, has dozens of articles that should be published and are in the public interest - but which would only invite these crippling lawsuits. His talk was quite short, in order for us to ask him lots of questions. Naturally, a lot of these were about the BCA case!

My question was economic. In the UK, libel cases are 140 times more expensive than they are in the rest of Europe. (Scroll down to the bottom of this page to see.) This is one major reason - besides very illiberal laws - that it is much worse for a writer to be sued for libel in London than elsewhere, and why the powerful use London as their suing venue whenever they can. But why? What makes them so? And what can we do about that? I'm sure Simon would rather have talked about physics, but he took a lot of trouble to answer my question. For one thing, libel cases have to go to the High Court, and are almost invariably seen by Judge Eady or a jury, rather than a simple tribunal. (That is also why they take so long.) The no-win, no-fee cases mean that the other side bears the cost - although I'm still confused by this; if you lose, you don't have to pay your lawyer, but then how can the winner do so? Someone enlighten me, please. Also, rather like house prices, the wealthy can drive up prices simply by having a lot of money to offer. "Here's a million pounds in advance, go and sue these people." It's hardly a level playing field.

Some of the laws relating to suing are especially archaic. There's an example from at least the Victorian era, if not before (I forget) - the Duke of Brunswick, anyway. A publisher had printed a pamphlet criticising him. Now, libel laws say you have to sue within a year of publication. This Duke was six years too late. However, he sent his manservant to London to obtain a new copy of this pamphlet - and he sued and won, because this method of obtaining it counted as a new publication. It is this tradition which has now had an impact on the Internet: every download of a document, no matter how old, counts as a fresh publication! So now, I suppose, an organisation could be sued for something written 200 years ago.

It was a terrific talk, well worth an uncomfortable next day sitting around on trains and waiting over an hour at Cardiff and over half an hour at Carmarthen in the rain. I bought a copy of Trick or Treatment for Simon to sign, as did several others. He let me buy him a (soft) drink - I told him I felt I owed it to him, as his case may have paved the way for making my life as a science writer easier in the future. His decision to fight, which came at a great cost, was a sacrifice that must have benefitted thousands! Simon's just as nice a chap as the person who introduced him said he was. He urged me to return to teaching. But I'm not going to do that, at least not for some years. I think my niche is getting to people outside schools and, indeed, outside formal education altogether (it is one of my bugbears that people are ordered to stay in education until they're 18, but once they're older than that, it's very difficult and expensive to return). I, and others, wanted to know what book he's going to write next. He doesn't know yet (or if he does, he wants to keep it to himself). But he is going to come and do Cardiff Skeptics for us any time from December onwards!

A wonderful couple of days full of skeptical learning - and my purse did not get stolen this time!

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Happy Third Birthday, Galaxy Zoo

Three years ago today was the long-awaited launch of Galaxy Zoo 1. I was just finishing off a wonderful pre-teaching Chemistry course at the time. My dream of being a science teacher did not become reality - but other dreams, light years beyond my wildest, became reality instead!

Check out the wonderful card (made by Hannah at silly o'clock, while I pelted her with stars and galaxies her Internet wouldn't load for itself), and all the zooites' greetings. Certain people talked about getting some statistics ready . . . Poke, poke . . . Not that I can talk! I've got into so many science-ish things these days that I've fallen behind. But I think this is a mark of being in the science community!

After three years, are we too big to join? Too established? Big, yes; but - I sincerely hope - we are as welcoming as we ever were. Paul Harper, who's just interviewed me and the Young Astronomers for Astronomy FM, joined the forum today. If you're interested in astronomy, please pop along.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

A Brief Guide to Galaxy Classification: Part 1 - Spirals and Ellipticals

The other night, whilst contemplating my Open University assignment, I tweeted that at least there was one part I'd have no trouble with - the galaxy classification section. Someone else said they wished they could do that, and it occurred to me that I've never blogged about the first thing about Galaxy Zoo: how to classify galaxies.

Galaxies come in a few major types, with miscellaneous variations within these types. Each type has some distinct characteristics of its own, which allow for recognition. Galaxy Zoo, you may or may not be surprised to hear, has found that some galaxies contain characteristics more typical of other types. And some galaxies seem to defy classification altogether. Which makes it less simple and more interesting. But I'll get onto that later.

However, the majority of galaxies do fall into a few basic types, and we'll start with them.

Here are some spiral galaxies, of the kind we live in. They come in many shapes, but all of them are flat, with arms spinning around a nucleus.

NGC 5364, credit SDSS

Messier 66, credit SDSS

NGC 3521, credit SDSS

Messier 77, credit SDSS

Messier 101, also known as "The Pinwheel Galaxy", credit SDSS

"Messier Objects", incidentally, are a useful collection of well-known objects visible with small telescopes, and their names are often shortened to M101, for example. Amusingly, they were actually a dump of pesky bright objects that had the ill manners not to be comets, which Charles Messier was looking for back in 1771. Now, having been studied with better telescopes, they are a gorgeous collection! The "NGC" numbers refers to the New General Catalogue, a much larger collection of deep sky objects. There are several more of these catalogues - don't worry about them until I've got you fully drowned in geekhood.

You'll notice some characteristics in common with these galaxies. For instance, their arms tend to be blue or bluish, while their nucleuses (I believe it's nucleuses for galaxies and nuclei for atoms . . .) are more yellow. This is because star formation is taking place in the arms.

Whenever star formation takes place, some of these stars will be huge blue supergiants. These monsters only live a few million years, outshining all the normal stars around them and casting their hot blue glow over the whole area. (Blue light is given off by hotter sources than red light.) But they go supernova pretty soon. Once they've done that, the area will be a more normal red or yellow colour. So you can safely bet that if an area is red or yellow, the star formation has stopped. This has happened in the majority of spiral galaxy nucleuses: there is no free gas left to fuel the star formation.

Why does star formation take place around the edge? Two main reasons. Firstly, there is movement. Looking at those galaxies, you can picture them twizzling round - in over 90% of cases in the opposite direction from the one shown in this video here, by the way (that always gives me the horrors, just like seeing signs for "tomatoe's" in the shops!). It's surprising to learn that the arms themselves don't move, or not much as far as I know - the stars are the objects that do! The arms are like traffic jams. Let's say that at Exit X on the M25 there's a traffic jam. Cars enter it, and eventually wriggle to the front, and get out again. The jam itself doesn't move, though cars enter and leave it.

But all this makes for a changing environment. Space isn't just full of stars, but also full of free gas and a tiny bit of dust. The clouds are extraordinarily thin - much thinner than the best laboratory vaccuum on Earth! - so they won't shrink to form stars all on their own. When something does, such as a shock wave from an explosion or the pull of gravity from some passing stars, that may jerk enough of the atoms into the same area for their gravity to start pulling on their surroundings. And then . . . Well, I'll write a post on star formation if you want me to. You get the point. Spiral arms are starforming because things are happening there.
Also, spiral arms are starforming for a simpler reason: that's where the free gas is. It's thought - or so I read in this book - that spiral galaxies build up gradually over time. Space, as I mentioned, is full of free gas; this gas is drawn into the galaxy bit by bit, so new stars can keep forming at the edges. In the middle, of course, it is all used up.

But spirals only account for about a third of large galaxies (which are certainly not the majority!). What about the other major type, the ellipticals?

Ellipticals are, on the surface, much simpler than spirals: a sphere or rugby ball shape of golden stars, a bright nucleus, and an orb that slowly "fades out" into space (rather than an abrupt start, as spirals are). They are far more three-dimensional than spirals; their stars do not all travel round in an orderly fashion along the same plane, but pretty much randomly. (A star's orbit does not have to be strictly circular or elliptical, as long as it is stable. That's something I'm not going to go into here, not least because I haven't researched it lately.)

They look peaceful, at least at first glance.

NGC 4261, credit SDSS

You will usually find ellipticals living in giant clusters:

NGC 5892, credit SDSS

You will usually find ellipticals living in giant clusters:

Cluster CGCG 087-040, credit SDSS

Abell Cluster, credit SDSS

The Coma Cluster, credit SDSS (the bright pink object is a star in our own galaxy).

Look at the difference between the colours of spirals and ellipticals. Ellipticals tend to be pretty much the same colour throughout - and to have no blue, so no star formation. For one reason or another, elliptical galaxies have no fuel available for making it.

This could be for various reasons. It could be that the galaxies are so old, all the gas has run out. It could be that the wacky and varied orbits of the stars thoroughly mixes the gas and effectively scoops it all up. It could be that the gas is too hot to condense - yes, for star formation you do need cold gas. Isn't that contradictory? But if it's too hot, the particles will just bounce off each other in such low pressures.

More galaxies are ellipticals than spirals. Ellipticals are also more variable in size - they can be very small or very large, while spirals seem to be more middling. There are a great many theories about how ellipticals form.

In the early days, when Edwin Hubble had just found out that galaxies existed - that the Milky Way was not the confines of the Universe - elliptical galaxies were called "early-types", meaning they were presumed to turn into spirals. Today it seems very unlikely that this could be so. To suddenly alter all these random star orbits and organise them into a flat spinning disk - oh, and insert a lot of free gas - and this is on a scale of perhaps 100,000 light years across, remember - well, if you have a mechanism for doing that, I'd like to hear about it.

It seems marginally more likely that it is vice versa; but not much likelier. Once a system of bodies are spinning in a circle, why should it stop? A possible mechanism for elliptical formation is a galaxy merger - when two galaxies collide. I'll show you some mergers in a subsequent post, and it's certainly an incident which guzzles gas and generates massive disorder. An alternative theory is that ellipticals are grown very rapidly (again unlike spirals) in an extremely fast infall of gas towards the centre of the elliptical. This would explain why ellipticals often have especially giant supermassive black holes in their centres.

There! Spiral and elliptical galaxies: the two most famous types. Have a galaxy party (well, actually Copeland's Septet) to celebrate, and tell me which are which!

Credit: SDSS

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Relatively Unexpected

This won't be my usual sort of blogpost (whatever that is) - it's one I promised someone I'd write. Mind you, I'm not too good at sticking to science anyway. When Chris urged me to start blogging, his advice came with the tag, "and see what you want to write about", and what I also want to write about is people.

Frankly, I'm not very academic, and although I'm often urged to do a PhD I'm not convinced it would be my thing. I never was able to learn much by myself; for me learning is an interactive process, and science a human thing.

Ideal science isn't, of course. Ideal science is entirely impersonal, with nature as the sole arbiter. Nature alone dictates who's right and wrong. Nature does not care whether or not we can understand it; the Universe isn't put together in a way that's easy for our brains to grasp; a course in a science subject has to be very carefully - and not always entirely honestly - put together if it wants to serve the human steps of understanding about its subject.

But even the best science relies on people to put it together; the peer review process, for example, which should be so impersonal, might be coloured by prejudice or even by exhaustion! Anyway, as I began Galaxy Zoo, I realised - to my shame - that science is not, as I'd thought for so many years, a bunch of facts to learn and link together, but - to my joy - a collective effort, made by people together. It's a human thing, and the part I'm good at is not the experiments but drawing people in.

I feel this need to "draw people in" especially strongly at work. My current job involves hiring out disability equipment and providing an information service for disabled people. In stark contrast to most of my other jobs, we're not all expected to be perfect here. That is, we're not expected to have endless strength, neatness, and an insane desire to sacrifice our families and outside lives to outdo our colleagues and prove our dedication. (Not that we're not expected to do a great job - we are - we're just not squashed!)

That this is something so rare (in my experience) worries me. So too do many of the things I learn about how much people can be restricted. A proper career seems a realistic option exclusively to people always in perfect mental and physical condition, which actually not everybody is. Irrational behaviour by the mentally ill or the overstressed is often a mystery to high-flyers. And meanwhile, the high flyers' seemingly ceaseless productivity is an impossibility for those who just weren't so lucky. That doesn't seem fair or indeed necessary to me, so I'll probably be writing more about this in the future.

Recently I spent two days sitting in front of a noticeboard and a lot of newsletters and leaflets, alongside a lot of other stands for other charities and organisations in Pembrokeshire. The events are aimed at the disabled, the elderly, or indeed any of the general public who might simply happen to be interested. (The biggest problem, I often hear - and I can see it's true - is not that there is no help for the less mobile and healthy, but that these people are often isolated and simply don't have any way of knowing that help is there. So it's important to get the message out as often as possible. Hence said event.) As it happened - and I'm saying this in my own capacity, not my employer's, and I'm not going to tell you who my employer is anyway! - these events both took place rather out of town, so very few locals knew we were around and if they did it was probably too much trouble to go along. The upside of this was that it did allow plenty of time for networking.

There was a lot of fun to be had, too. One kind gentleman showed me and another lady how to do Nordic walking with a couple of poles. This was right in the middle of the room, with everybody else watching. Most people were too self-conscious to do it, and he told us to stop if we felt like that. I replied that, having been a teacher and given lectures, I have the self-consciousness of a five-year-old - and afterwards a few people came up and said, "I wish I'd done that!" A group of firemen decided to have a game of football. And I tried out a mysterious machine on which you place your feet to receive an electric current. Apparently it gives you a workout by contracting and relaxing your muscles in quick succession. The strength is set between 0 and 100. Some people, the lady told me, can't feel anything until 80 or 90. By the time I'd got to 8, my feet felt weird. At about 11 they felt as if they had the worst ever case of pins and needles - I leapt off, put my shoes on and felt very weird for some time! What on earth machine was that? If any of you have heard more about it, I'd love to hear.

I was most moved by a story pinned up by the Ambulance Car Driver service for West Wales. The gentleman running it, Mr Arwyn Thomas, must have thought I was a nutcase because I asked him to e-mail me the exact story, but he was very friendly and did as I asked! It was about an award given to two ladies named Jean and Yvonne. They both drove other people to hospital, people who did not require an ambulance but who could not get there on their own. (I once spent a couple of weeks on the telephone end of just that service, and people who need transport to hospital often have very complex problems. I might write about that some day.) In both cases, they got to know their clients quite well. Well enough to know when to worry about them. For instance, Yvonne was concerned when a lady recovering from a stroke did not appear at the door - she was able to enter the lady's house and found her trapped in her bathroom, where she'd been for 18 hours. On a similar occasion, after ringing the hospital to check the gentleman she was collecting hadn't been admitted, Jean had to call the police to arrange a break-in to his house. What inspired me about this story was the bravery it takes to undertake such a major action - when it was so desperately needed. It would be so easy to walk away feeling it would be too rude. As Mr Thomas put it, "Without their desire and willingness to care for others I dread to think what might have happened to their patients on that day."

People need each other, and those working in science are no exception. Similar (though less drastic) events have taken place on the Galaxy Zoo forum, not to mention other forums I've been on - obviously I'm not going to give details; suffice to say a common interest or a common need is often enough to let people get to know each other. Enough to let them know when somebody needs rescuing. Which happens a lot more often than I think everybody realises.

But my personal favourite happening of those events was to do with physics and relativity.

Next to our stall on the first day was a lady from the local college, offering computer courses. I am, of course, always interested in that sort of thing, and we had a lovely chat about how much easier it is to learn with others than to try and study alone. That was how I got talking about Galaxy Zoo with her: how, no matter how many instructions are available, people almost always learn better if somebody else takes the trouble to explain. We discovered a mutual interest in physics and astronomy.

"The thing that I've never understood is relativity," she said. "Somebody going away from Earth for a year and coming back in less than that time. Surely they've really got to be a year older?"

I explained about how, if you're travelling at high speeds (and change your motion) which another party, for instance the Earth, does not do, your time will slow down. She knew that. She'd read about it, she'd seen documentaries about it, but it had never made sense. What I said was almost accidental. I tried to explain that all molecular movements would be slowed, your thinking, your digestion, everything that happened in your rocket - it was three words that made it click, "everything slows down". She suddenly raised a finger, her eyes went wide, and she stared very hard across the room - and said: "Got it!"

Anyway, I promised her I'd write about that moment! It was definitely one of the proudest moments of my life, especially when she said she'd been worrying about it for longer than I'd been alive. The facts were evidently at her fingertips - it was just that a new picture was needed to put them all together in a way that made sense. That's where the human interaction came in.

Next day I brought her copies of "The Time and Space of Uncle Albert" and "Black Holes and Uncle Albert" by Russell Stannard, both of which I thoroughly recommend whatever your age. I also told her about Skeptics in the Pub in Wales, at which point she realised I was the girl who'd done the Ten23 protest in January. Apparently a friend of hers had cut out that article to show a homeopathy-obsessed relative, but hadn't the heart and just kept it for his own enjoyment in the end. That sounded like the best approach to me - if somebody's really into it they'd probably be lost without the psychological boost. That is, if they'd be converted anyway, which is highly unlikely - it would probably cause more hurt than learning.

She asked me if Skeptics in the Pub wasn't preaching to the converted. That is, of course, a good point. But for the reason I've just stated above, it's not always the right thing to shout straight at the people whose passions you're arguing against. Besides, we "converted" still need a place where we can get together, have a good laugh, learn a lot, and be with like-minded people rather than feel on uneasy ground whenever we're in our element! Skepticism is, in a sense, a public use of the scientific method, and just like other science it's nice to do it together.

It was a great thing to mix faraway physics and the Universe with such a down-to-earth situation as a disability awareness event. The nicest scientific part of that? It's all part of the same thing - us, our disabilities, and this event all came from the same supernovae. The nicest people thing? I had a lot of great chats, made some new friends, got some very useful information for my work (and hopefully provided plenty to the other organisations too), and hope very much to be on a computer course this autumn.

Let me know if you'd like more blog posts about these "people" things.