Friday, 23 December 2011

36 Symptoms of Science Geekery

Science geekery is a deadly disease, not least because it makes you so happy you never want to give it up.

These are 36 of the symptoms I've encountered - and I don't think this is all. Most are mine; a few are other people's. What are yours?

1. You look for constellations in freckles and moles on your skin. And your boyfriend's/girlfriend's - and point them out when you find them. They may be a little disturbed, which is saddening because you mean it as a compliment.

2. One of the most upsetting and bewildering things you can hear is the sentiment that science takes the beauty or poetry out of something.

3. You start quoting Tom Lehrer at length when drunk. Or, indeed, sober and having a good time.

4. Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot makes you well up.

5. You have a mental list of all the science things you didn't understand in school. If you're organised you read up on them. If you're not, you just feel annoyed about them and keep planning to read up on them some day.

6. You have your own mental list of what you would put on the science curriculum, if given dictatorial powers!

7. Bookshops are incredibly dangerous places to enter. (For your bank account, not your physical self - unless you do your back in, of course, or indeed sit on the floor and get so absorbed reading something that somebody trips over you.)

8. Once shy and lonely, you suddenly become a very talkative and enthusiastic person!

9. Other people's responses to this vary. They might remark, "You get all animated!" or "You light up when you talk about . . .". However, more commonly they'll object to "these things you just blurt out" as if you've said something exceedingly offensive. Other remarks may include: "You're very passionate about . . ." in a telling-off sort of voice; "You're obviously really shy. Only shy people talk that much all in one go" and "You really remind me of my autistic relative/friend X" or gently take it upon themselves to diagnose autism or Aspergers. You tell them that is very interesting.

10. Fellow geeks are always to be cherished.

11. Your Facebook wall shows rather a lot of links to APOD pictures. You can't help but hope that some of the desperately boring people you can't acceptably unfriend will be even a little inspired. They aren't.

12. Stories such as the idea of "open science" (1st chapter here!) or the children's bumblebee paper put a silly grin on your face for hours.

13. You sneak onto a geeky website, or at least Twitter, when clothes, make-up, alcohol and X-factor become a topic of intense and opinionated discussion in the workplace. Or, if forced to participate, you come out with all the conversation-stoppers.

14. This makes perfect sense!

15. When your friends discuss the inevitabilities of nuclear war or the futility of trying to feed the starving or combat corruption, or treat as completely reasonable the idea of no country agreeing to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions until everyone else does (because it would be bad for their economy), science seems the obvious solution. For example, putting more money into science will drive our renewable energy, and then when everyone else runs out of fossil fuels we'll be in the lead. "Yes," they shrug, meaning "If only", or less.

16. Seeing the cruelty and stupidity of a lot of the world is, every so often, a horrific shock - because you've been concentrating on science, which is so beautiful and makes you so happy.

17. Indeed you feel that more science for everyone would make the world a much happier place.

18. Glow-in-the-dark stars are a very good idea.

19. Remarks such as "But we didn't know how electricity worked for ages, but we still used it" and "We used to think the world was flat" (usually said as excuses for thinking something unscientific and being too lazy to listen to reason) drive you up the wall.

20. When someone claims that some alternative remedy works just fine, you immediately prepare a firestorm of questions about studies, evidence, the placebo effect, and the mechanism (sadly, that usually has to remain inside your head - unless you're a lot braver and more patient than I am).

21. It deeply upsets you to see an inaccurate scientific article.

22. The best clothes and other accessories are those containing an excellent science slogan/joke/diagram.

23. After years, when young, of being personally desperately committed to all your arguments, you grow a virtue of detaching yourself from your scientific work, in order to look at it properly. That ties in with the dry, detached language of scientific journals - although you can't help agreeing they would be much more accessible if written in more ordinary language. (Now if only there was a job requiring that type of translation . . .)

24. You look back on the times you weren't doing science and ask yourself, "What was I doing all that time?"

25. The world becomes full of toys. Clouds change shape before your eyes, whiteboards invite you to write a science joke, broken machinery is there to be pulled apart, Lego is perfectly acceptable at all ages, and your glasses (if you wear them) turn the edges of everything red and blue. And when you arrive early for a meeting, and are conveniently there to help pour the coffee, you first arrange all the polystyrene cups (which you disapprove of, because they're not recyclable, although you wonder if you ought to check that is still true - but cool mugs are still better) into the shapes of a barred spiral, an unbarred spiral and an elliptical.

26. You then excuse yourself by explaining that, now you are into science, the world is suddenly full of toys, and everyone around you grins and nods, because they all feel the same way!

27. You see galaxies in your coffee. And everyday objects in galaxies. And point them out.

28. You can't help but check for flawed methodology in every claim and every study you see. And you see a lot.

29. Organisations or groups whose principles support sometimes see you as the enemy when you point out the flaws in their methods or reasoning. This is tragic, because you want them to produce the best data and arguments.

30. You are occasionally reminded that you have forgotten to do something important, such as turning off the oven, because you were so busy thinking about supernovae or similar.

31. When you suddenly understand a concept or equation you began struggling with a long time ago, it's difficult not to jump or dance. You have to settle for texting your geeky friends or blogging about it later.

32. Sooner or later, you will come across someone who feels that there is something childish about facts and being "right or wrong". This is a lot to do with their own maturity and having learnt to compromise and respect everyone's opinion. You think about this and go through a long thought process concluding that your own maturity about knowledge has passed various stages. As a child, for instance, you might have thought in black and white, and that is what this person usually thinks you are doing. As a teenager, you learnt to think like them (and some people never get beyond that stage). As a science geek, the maturity is error bars, acknowledged uncertainties, and a healthy respect for facts which you know can never be entirely proved, only disproved - who knows how or when?

33. When people ask you to recommend Christmas presents, you give them a list of science books. You genuinely found them funny and delightful.

34. You tell your beloved to paste this equation into Google: (sqrt(cos(x))*cos(200*x)+sqrt(abs(x))-0.7)*(4-x*x)^0.01, sqrt(9-x^2), -sqrt(9-x^2)

35. A science lecture, a Skeptics in the Pub night or a stargazing/telescope session is a much better night out than getting pissed.

36. You use the word "geek" as a compliment. Other people think you're putting yourself down. This needs explaining.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

The train tracks

Before you read this post (or choose not to), please bear in mind it might be distressing or triggering - that is, bring horrible memories to the forefront of your mind. It's not something I would have intended to blog about before this happened, but now it has, I think it's important - hopefully, you'll see why. There's some help sites at the bottom of the page.

It's the 11th week of a 12 week term in my postgraduate course. My blogging has gone out of the window, as has a lot of my attention on other projects such as Galaxy Zoo. I'm stressed about getting work to support myself and about my not-easily-cured lack of mathematical knowledge. I love the course but I'm just exhausted now and want to sleep, but I have to get off the train to wait for the next one because the line is branching.

It's freezing out. I was having a fascinating e-mail conversation earlier and completely forgot to change into warmer clothes before leaving the house. The platform's shiny black with rain and I think about latent heat and how it can be both raining and so cold. I walk up the platform to try and get warm, my bag batting on my back. I turn back and - what?

There were two men on the train tracks. They appeared to embrace briefly, and then walk slowly and carefully back across to the platform opposite. Something stopped inside me, as if I was watching a film that had suddenly gone silent, the screen shrunk, my breathing switched off. What if a train came? They were standing on the rails - would they be electrocuted? A bunch of people had gathered at the edge and held out their hands to pull them up again. I took this to be a prank, or one of them having dropped something. I was quite far away but wandered nearer, suddenly nosy.

One of the men was holding his hands up, as if the others were pointing a gun. There was some jostling and pathetic wails of "leave me alone". It was then that I realised what was happening. Would they calm him down? Talking helps usually, doesn't it? There were a few moments of rising jostling and then calm. And then the man broke away and ran. Towards me. I was just wondering if there would be any point jumping onto the tracks myself when another man ran after him, caught him up, grabbed him, and was joined by two others who held him tight. They ended up on the ground. The man was howling now. He wanted them so much to get off so he could . . . do it again.

I looked around me. Most people were standing still, staring. No, I didn't see anyone obviously calling the emergency services. Suddenly it occurred to me that the men holding him couldn't, there were no staff around, and nobody was in charge. Nobody was going to come along and make everything all right. How could they? British Transport Police. What was their number? There were signs everywhere normally saying "If you see a train being vandalised, call . . ." I couldn't find one. Right. Can't waste any more time. You might have seconds. Action stations.

I pulled my phone out of my pocket. For some reason, dialling 999 - the first time I've ever done that - made me feel very foolish and embarrassed. Also I had started to shake wildly and it affected my voice.

"Emergency services," came a recording. Then silence.

Then "What emergency service do you require?"

"Police please."

Ring, ring. Oh, a long ring, ring. "Police, what is your emergency?"

I almost said "Hello, good evening," on autopilot. The guys still had the man held down, against the wall. His howls were just incoherent howls, like a baby crying. I couldn't even see him. I was right opposite them now, just those two horrifying railway tracks in between.

It was a very clear-voiced, calm lady. I told her which Tube station I was at and that someone had tried to throw himself onto the tracks. She asked if he was still on the tracks and I said no. I described as best I could what was going on. She asked me what he looked like. I had to be honest and say it had all happened so fast and I couldn't see him any more, I couldn't be sure. My mind was suddenly full of a list of features David Allen Green explains here: "Sex, height, hair colour, build, jacket, bottoms, trainers, fabrics, colours of clothes." (I could remember most of those, not all, and managed to come up with height, hair colour, jacket, colours of clothes. I won't repeat them because I don't want this poor guy to be identified this way.) She asked me the most obvious, race.

"What platform is he on?" Oh God. I couldn't see. I paced about trying to find the sign. I told her that he was "on the one in the middle". I found out I was on Platform 3 and told her, adding that he was opposite me, but she thought I meant he was on Platform 3. I was later able to interrupt her and say Platform 2 - I had walked to the right place and was able to see a tiny sign. She clarified with me that there were people holding him. I said there were but I thought he might well do it again if they let him go. All this while people were standing rooted to the spot. A few were on their phones but it seemed to be to friends. I really couldn't tell. None of them seemed to be aware I was calling the cops. I can't remember what she asked that prompted me to respond at one point that he basically just seemed terribly upset and needed some looking after. I still felt really silly and apologised for wasting their time if they'd received other calls about this. She said "No, no," and really sounded like she meant it. "The police are on their way," she told me after a surprisingly short time, "and an ambulance, too, just in case."

She asked me if I wanted a reference number. I told her I couldn't write it down but if it was short I could try and memorise it. I think I have! She asked for my name, but no further details. She thanked me for calling and we hung up.

I longed to yell across to the struggling guys that I had called for help but I knew my feeble, shaking voice wouldn't get to them and it would hardly impress the guy they were holding. I was contemplating finding my way to that platform but it proved unnecessary: within a wonderfully short time several policemen arrived. Slowly they seemed to be taking over the holding down, and doing some talking. The guy stayed on the floor. I couldn't make out what the police were saying but at one point one asked, "And have you taken anything with that?" I noticed a girl had her arm around him - did she know him? I got the impression nobody else did. At one point the police told people brusquely to move away, apparently including the folks who'd held him down. But in general it was all very politely executed.

It had to be ten or fifteen minutes since I'd seen the two men on the rails - of course it's so hard to tell - but it did occur to me that no trains had come, though mine had been due for a long time. Although I hadn't seen any staff, they must have been stopped. I was sort of loathe to get onto mine when it did arrive. I wanted to stay and see what happened. But it wasn't as if anything I did, or knew about, would help him now. Calling the police had been in my hands: now everything was out of them. I went home.

* * *

I was shaking a lot as I got onto the train and sat between people who had no idea what had happened. It seemed very odd that none of the dozens of folks watching had exchanged any communication. I guess it was because it wouldn't have helped. What was passing through the minds of those who hadn't pinned the guy down, hadn't called 999? Had they been appalled at the thought of him dying or was it just something to watch? Had they seen me call 999 and did they think I was doing the right thing? It didn't matter, of course. It's just that . . . well, this hadn't seemed how people are, usually. The number of times someone's spontaneously helped me drag a suitcase upstairs, or even spotted me looking lost and come to see where I was going. Or just happily begun a chat. Yes, in London.

I walked home fast, as always. It was still cold, but my own shaking had I think warmed me up. This kind of thing lets loose all kinds of emotions. I wanted to call my parents, but as they're doctors and saving lives is routine to them, I was afraid they wouldn't be impressed. I hoped that guy would be taken to hospital and get what he needed. And, of course, I wondered what the hell he'd gone through.

He must have been out of his mind to do something so publicly. Did that mean it was just attention-seeking (a cry for help), or that he was so far gone that he wasn't thinking, or that he honestly didn't think anyone would stop him? Four years ago, during that teaching course, I had three detailed suicide plans and all of them involved ensuring I was alone and, if anybody turned up, they wouldn't have time to stop me.

I certainly didn't begin this blog expecting that I would reveal anything so personal, but what the heck - once something's public anyone trying to use it against me would look bloody silly. (And if you are for example an employer who'd turn me down for a job because I've once felt suicidal, I don't want to work for you anyway.) Suicide does happen, it does affect people, and there is no point in not talking about it.

At the time, it seemed that nothing was within my control, and it was only going to get worse. I was far away from home with no real friends anywhere remotely near me, and no time to contact those who mattered. There were so many documents being demanded of me that were intrusive and personal and gave people with power too many more weapons. The reasons I wanted to teach were just the things the teaching profession seemed to wish to attack - in fact my very self as well as my dreams seemed to be their target. That and really obvious bullying, such as criticising me loudly in front of the pupils, teachers and teaching students, or the technicians keeping me waiting for 45 minutes and, while I was still standing there, greeting the other student enthusiastically and helping her immediately when she came in without an appointment. And a teacher, knowing this had happened, charging me with booking equipment that he knew I knew the technicians would refuse to provide. I reported all this and was told "oh, how sad" by the course director. My mentor and his colleagues blamed me, informing me that either this had not happened or that it was my fault it had, and upped their vigilance and destructive criticism of my teaching. I knew that nothing I did would make them pass me - that everything I did I would have to write about and that they would state that it was a failure. In short, I was dependent entirely on the judgment of other people. Home was no respite; I was sharing a very cold grubby house with a girl who among other things almost constantly played music so loud that my body and furniture shook, and screamed her head off if I asked her to turn it down. I was the only person on the course without a car and a nice place to live, and one of only two without a family or partner living in the same house being a constant support. No rest, no control, no hope, no alliance, and a weird sort of grief - that's not a combination you can easily solve.

It's a pretty basic feeling, desperation, and a pretty basic factor that stopped me. I wrote a goodbye letter to my family - at which point I saw my mother's face with an expression of knowing what I was going to do. I couldn't do it. Simple as that. In fact, I decided if I was willing to destroy my own life, I might just as well cripple myself financially, so I moved house. That did improve things. It only delayed the inevitable as far as the teaching went - but it was very uplifting to realise how very easy it was to make a major change.

There was a massive shift in my thinking. I realised this a year later when I finally found a sympathetic doctor. He asked me if I was suicidal. I said no, and meant it, but mentioned that I had been a year previously. He asked me what I would do and I told him. It occurred to me that I had absolutely no idea then (I had moved back home by then) what I would do. If I ask myself now, I have no idea.

If you're feeling like that, it does end. And no, you're not the only one. I have read of, and been told of and confided in, too many similar situations to feel that posting this is somehow going to expose me as a freak. There are so many hopeless situations, so much cowardice and bullying, so many power games in this world. And of course there are so many other reasons other people have for feeling like that; I doubt my case is remotely unique, but nor do I think it a descriptor for other people.

It does pass.

I wonder what happened to that guy. I worried all the way home that he would do the same thing again tomorrow. Can he be helped? Do we have the resources to do so? Will the right people be in the right place at the right time? Can he make a drastic change to his life - is he in a position to do it? I don't know. I would love to know if he's OK but I guess I'll never find out.

Suicide has been much in the news lately - this is written not long after the death of Gary Speed. Comments on Facebook and other such treasure troves of wisdom ask: "How could he have been so ungrateful? He had a family, didn't he realise he had any responsibility to them?" A frequent response, which is probably true, is that he was no longer in a position to think in that rational way - perhaps he felt, if anything, that they'd be better off without him. Prior to 1961, suicide was illegal - a book I read in my early teens, "Tell Alice" I think it was called, included a family which had lived in permanent shame because a daughter had attempted it.

Stigma and shame solve absolutely nothing. Same with disability and mental illness. Making an act shameful will not prevent someone from falling victim to circumstances that will make them carry out that act - and stigma and shame includes responses such as "he was irresponsible to do that to his family". Yes, a person in full happiness and control would be, but the very point is that that person has lost such happiness and control and needs to get that back before such things can be expected of them. This page sums it up perfectly: the unbearableness has outweighed the ability to cope.

At this point I know I'm treading on very thin ground, being utterly inexpert in such matters, and I don't want to go and put out any misinformation or distress anyone for no good reason. So I won't attempt to analyse any further.

The other thing that prompted me to write this honest and soul-bearing post (although frankly what happened to me could happen to anyone, so it's not even as personal as all that) is the deluge of positive and honest reactions I got on Twitter when, still shaking, I got home and shared this story.

Several sent me virtual hugs and sympathy for having seen something so awful. A few sent me blogposts linking to their and their friends' stories, about how someone's suicide or attempted suicide had affected them, and what happened - they were frightening and painful, but life-affirming: we are all people, most of us care very much about each other, including complete strangers. So many congratulated me for calling 999, which was a little embarrassing as the heroes in the story were surely the blokes who reacted so fast and held him and particularly the one who got down on the tracks. So many expressed sorrow and empathy for the man who wanted to die. And so very many told me, publicly and privately, that I was right to bring up suicide and that it affects so many people and should be talked about more. It chokes me up just how many people have come closer, much closer, to ending their lives than I did.

If you are feeling that way, or you know someone who is, please take other options first. Talk to someone about it, contact an organisation. Don't worry about wasting their time. Don't think your needs are less than others who call them. They're there for you as well as for other people. If you feel guilty, just acknowledge that you do.

These are a list of organisations I've come across, heard of, been sent - please add to them in the comments if you wish.

Metanoia - "If you are thinking about suicide, read this first"

The Samaritans - you can phone them, write to them or walk in

Mind - information for families and friends as well as individuals

NHS Choices has a range of phone numbers and websites, including some listed here. They also suggest seeing your GP. Other places suggest going to Accident and Emergency.

The Calm Zone, specifically this page

And, if it's already too late, Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide

And a bit more lighthearted, Questionable Content. Yes, really. This arc in the story starts here (five pages earlier) and Jeph Jacques, the author, recommends an American site, Suidology.

I've decided to edit this paragraph as I felt so bad about it. I initially was terrified someone suicidal might come to me for help and I would need a miracle to save them, so would fail. (After I did my First Aid course I was warned that if I tried to help someone I might make a mistake and be sued. That sort of thing.) But whatever I wrote looked like I was saying "Sorry, but whatever you feel, I can't help." I then came across this list of things you can do if you get a suicidal call and none of them require a miracle - they're all quite simple. I recommend a read - it contains good news for both parties: that the important things are talking and listening. It's surprisingly simple to ask for help, and it's surprisingly simple to give it!

If my distressing evening and my witnessing what that man did leads to one person reading this who will pick up the phone when they need help, then that's all I can possibly want. Back to astronomy at some point - honest!