Thursday, 24 January 2013

Save the Ri - how can you help?

Many of you may already be aware that the Royal Institution headquarters at 21 Albermarle Street London are up for sale. In the wake of this announcement there has been an outcry from scientists wishing to save the Ri.

Update: Many commentators on the topic seem to be unaware of what the Ri is and what it does, so to clear up confusion their own description is here.
There is lots of stuff happening surrounding the Ri right now, so I thought I'd try to capture some of it as a useful way of helping others to get informed and take action.

Please leave a comment with other initiative and I will add them as we go...


On Twitter the hashtag #savetheRi and #saveRi are both being used currently. 
On Facebook you can join the Save21AlbemarleSt group



Or consider joining the Ri as a member to have a say in it's future.


There is also a drive for the government to buy 21 Albermarle St for the public. You can read more about this campain here and you can sign the petition here.


There was a rather disappointing article in Nature this morning about the subject, which I think misrepresents what the Ri does and how important it is. I've left my own comment (reproduced below), but please read the article and add your own thoughts.

Today there is also a letter from 22 Ri Xmas lecturers to The Times - behind a paywall right now, I will post a link to the text when I can find it. (Update: Thanks to Mark Miodownik who took a photo of the paper here)

Here are some other links to commentary on the matter:
Mark Miodownik's interview on @BBCNewshour on why we need to save the Royal Institution http://bbc.in/10zgK38 (44:04~47:44)

Blogs:Lizzie Crouch 
Jamie Gallagher 
... a previous one from me on my first time presenting at the Ri last year
More to come...

My comment on the Nature piece:
I'd like to add that it is important to realise that it is not just the audience who benefit from the history and heritage of a venue like the Ri, but the scientific community itself. The Ri inspires scientists themselves – not just audiences.

The first time I was invited to speak in the Faraday theatre at the Ri was an absolute career highlight. As a scientist I felt I was walking in the footsteps of my heroes: Faraday, Davy and all the more recent Christmas Lecturers who (thanks to the Ri Channel!) I now know gave lectures in that very spot.

For a scientist, presenting at the Ri is considered an honour. It's taking a step up from talks in schools, outreach, science festivals etc... which are all very good in their way – but they don't guarantee two important features of the Ri: real scientists who are renowned for their communication skills AND the professional support of the Ri team working together to create something truly special.

I heard about the Ri being up for sale just a day or two after giving my latest talk there. I was still buzzing from the experience and the announcement truly felt like a punch in the gut.

Take away 21 Albermarle street, and we take away that amazing interaction, a venue that has inspired so many to become scientists and allowed so many scientists to share their subject with the world.

(Also – I'm shocked this article doesn't even mention the young people's programme – have you ever been to a schools lecture at the Ri? The kids LOVE it! I have never had such switched-on questions from the audience in ten years of doing this kind of event.)

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Social awkwardness… or how not to interact with your female colleagues


My field is pretty male dominated. I'd estimate that the percentage of women in accelerator physics must be about 10% or less. Most of the time it's no problem… the vast majority of my male colleagues are great - sociable, friendly, communicative, and great to work with. For the sake of argument I'm going to liken that type of colleague to Leonard from the Big Bang Theory.


Howard, Leonard, Penny, Sheldon & Raj from the Big Bang Theory (from Wikimedia)

Just occasionally I run into the socially awkward ones with a superiority complex (Sheldon), the ones who don't know how to speak to women at all so avoid them (Raj) or even the ones who speak to women inappropriately (Howard).

In reality many scientists I've met lie somewhere on the spectrum between the four Big Bang Theory boys. Now, we can't change the behaviour of other people, we can only change ourselves. Realistically this means dealing with issues when and if they arise.

Sometimes though, I wish I could smack 'em round the head and tell them how to behave (are we sensing a streak of Penny, here?). So I thought I'd share with you, from personal experience, a few tips of things to avoid when dealing with your female colleagues, neatly labelled with S (Sheldon), R (Raj) or H (Howard) stereotypes for your social-awkwardness-correcting pleasure. (You're welcome)

Feel free to share your own rather tongue-in-cheek advice as comments!

Here goes:

Just because of my gender, I am not equivalent to the tea lady until proven otherwise. When discussing science with me, don't act like I have to prove to you that I am competent. If you wouldn't say it to a man, don't say it to a woman. Don't automatically assume I have a lower level of knowledge than my male colleagues - if I don't know what you're talking about, I'll tell you. (S, H)

Do not come to my office and attempt to give me little unprompted 'tutorials' on things you somehow feel I should know. I will feel intimidated if you put me in that situation without warning and I am made to feel like an idiot. I won't learn anything, trust me. (S)

When questioning me about my results, methods, and so on, if I seem to go on the defensive it's because I feel you're attacking me. Do not simply increase the pressure until I 'crack'. Learn to be empathetic. (S)

Don't hire me, help me or even talk to me if you're only doing it because you feel you 'should' as I'm the only woman. (H)

Please try to contain your nervous laughter when you talk to me. I'm not funny. The presence of a woman is not funny. Most likely, I will feel like you're laughing at me for some reason and get defensive (or start looking for something caught between my teeth)… rather than whatever the hell reason you're actually laughing. (R, but also H, S & L)

Don't express your shock and awe at my existence. Don't spend dinner asking me how old I am in front of my colleagues. Don't send me inappropriate messages ending with kisses (this is just normal sms etiquette!!) and please, please don't try to hit on me in a professional situation. (H)

(Just for the record I have no female colleagues like Leslie Winkle or those other grad students who always seem to hanker after Sheldon, in case you were about to ask for her number…) (H)