Two events this week have bolstered my hope that science – by which I mean the rational exploration of the universe through the experimental process – is winning.
Last Monday I was one of around 4,000 people who packed out the Hammersmith Apollo for what can only be described as a nerds’ night out. Uncaged Monkeys, the live show based on Radio 4’s The Infinite Monkey Cage science programme, is one of those ideas that really shouldn’t work. A lively line-up of comedians, physicists, mathematicians, epidemiologists, and all-round geeks spent the evening lecturing on the wonders of their different scientific disciplines. It was fantastic.
Famous names included Professor Brian Cox, of Wonders of the Universe fame, the current poster-boy for science. I’m inching closer to understanding both the second law of thermodynamics, and the whole Higgs bosun thingy, thanks to his enthusiastic and sometimes poetic explanations.
Simon Singh, who’s a wonderful science writer, showed he’s equally good on his feet, with a lively session demonstrating (with the use of a gherkin, which he electrocuted live on stage) why exactly we know that the universe is expanding. But more importantly, he showed how scientific theories can be tested with experimentation, thus moving knowledge on, inch by precious inch. No, I’m not talking about the gherkin.
There was Ben Goldacre, ranting about the abuse of science through suppression of data and perfidious trial design, there was science-based comedy with Chris Addison and Robin Ince, there was stand-up maths and songs about zoological reproduction techniques. Most of all there was a big, lively, surprisingly varied crowd of people happy to turn out on a Monday night and pay good money to celebrate science.
Celebrating science was the focus of Wednesday night, too, when I helped host a table at the BMJ Group Awards, recognising the best in medicine and health care. The BMJ Evidence Centre, which is my day time home, sponsored the Evidence into Practice category. I was honoured to eat my dinner surrounded by stars – like the winner, Richard Feinmann, who helped introduce low-cost rapid TB testing to Uganda; Laurence Wood, who developed a programme based on the best evidence-based practice to reduce extremely premature births in Coventry; and the UK partners of Siew Yim Loh, who extrapolated results from other chronic conditions to introduce a programme that increased quality of life for women with breast cancer in Malaysia.
The other awards were equally inspiring, from the research paper of the year (CRASH-2, which proved you can save lives in trauma cases by using the widely-available drug tranexamic acid to stem bleeding), to medical team in a crisis zone (Doctors For You, which provided a model of emergency care for flooding in India).
The lifetime achievement award went to a giant of evidence-based medicine. Professor Sir Richard Peto, co-director of the clinical trials service and epidemiological studies unit at Oxford University, is one of the key researchers on tobacco, and the harm it does across so many areas of health. Accepting the award, Sir Richard said he’d simply worked on ‘researching the bleeding obvious’ and that ‘it’s been fun.’
Which is where I came in. We seem to be just awakening to the idea that science is a lot of fun, as well as making an enormous amount of difference to our understanding of the world. So sure, there have been some idiocies in the press this week, like the ‘magnetic boy‘ and the woman ‘allergic to electricity‘. But this kind of nonsense, regurgitated without critical analysis, seems increasingly irrelevant and out of touch. The smart money’s with the science.