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.


Sakib said...

Yay that was great! I would love it if you did more people thingies! We are nothing without one another and each one of us are the way we are because of people. One reason I really enjoy doing my website is because it ends up bringing people together, also I've ended up being part of a collective organism of humanity as I've tried to include as many people as possible in this project. The people make us who we are and it isn't more apparent than in astronomy. I've always felt a bond with all the astronomers on this planet even though I have hardly met any!

Alice said...

Ah, you make me smile, Sakib :-)

You are so right, it is wonderful to share things with people we've never met!

And everyone else, I recommend going on Sakib's website, it's beautiful!