British Science Festival Day 3 :D

Hello 🙂 here goes another late night blog writing session from me. To avoid the whole tedious: ‘first I did this and then I did this’ approach, I am going to put subheadings about each of the talks I went to (because they are genuinely all too interesting to miss out).

Pocket Doctor
This talk was on how smartphones, smartwatches, Google Glass etc. could be used to monitor people’s movements, speech patterns and all sorts of other things like text message content, to give doctors objective information on their symptoms over time.
I’ve read about this topic before, but hadn’t thought about how some of this information is already being measured by our phones and being thrown away, for example in the technology that flips the screen when your orientation changes– this measures the direction of gravity acting on your device (something I am completely in awe of the accuracy of, having tried a similar thing in the lab).
Also the low cost of this type of thing to gather medial trial data, for example, was something I hadn’t considered– it is really hard and expensive to find people to take part in trials, especially if you have to call them into somewhere to take tests and monitor them, whereas this way is as simple as downloading an app or calling a number.
This talk mostly focused on detecting Parkinson’s and its severity. The various tests for this, including saying ‘ahhh’ into the phone and monitoring movement of patients using the orientation thing, could detect and place estimates on the severity of the symptoms to a higher agreement than two doctors looking at the same patient.
The only slight problem I had was the professor’s answer to a question about whether you could see your own data, which was that basically, if you weren’t a trained statistician you wouldn’t understand it. I don’t think that is true at all- there is an abundance of evidence that people very quickly become experts in things that are important to them, like their own health. Not all doctors are that mathematically adept either– I don’t see a reason why a simple interface couldn’t be made so people could interpret their own data, as long as there was a professional who could check their analysis.
There are obviously very many privacy concerns as well, so a rollout of this project would have to be handled and explained very carefully, but the promise of it, I think is really interesting.

Economics of inequality
There ever three speakers for this, one speaking about the inequality between the average worker, one about inequality in the top 1% of earners and one on gender inequality. It was really packed with speedy information and confusing graphs with squished axes that whizzed by, though there were a lot of interesting points mentioned.
Key things I took away from this talk are:
-France seems to be a really anomalously not unequal country
-Computers have come, and are still coming for jobs, but not the ones you might expect. As I mentioned in many last blog, robots turn out to suck at many human things like folding clothes and being waiters, though they are very good at replacing bank tellers in the form of ATMs and other similar middle-skilled jobs. An interesting graph was shown that demonstrated the near perfect correlation between investment in computer systems and job losses in the middle sector.
-The pay gap is lower for women in a lot of continental Europe, but the number of women in work was much lower too, suggesting there is still a choice of quit work and raise a family or staying in work and not having a family. Denmark and Finland buck this trend- so it could be interesting to see if their system is truly more equal for men and women.

Who owns medicine?
This was a panel consisting of an intellectual property lawyer, a historian of medecine and someone from Stop AIDS charity. This talk was straight after the last two, and my brain was kind of fried, but two interesting things I picked up on were:
-The traditional patent system is failing in personalised medicine. You can’t patent genes (they aren’t new) and it can also be difficult to patent techniques for isolating genes and similar. This might be a big problem for drug companies.
-Countries can rewrite their patent laws to protect the human rights of their citizens by enabling them to sidestep foreign companies and make cheap imitation drugs available. This has been done in India, Brazil and Argentina. However, pharmaceutical companies tried to pay millions to prevent South Africa doing the same to get access to AIDS drugs until huge international pressure eventually made them back down.

This was mostly a question and answer session with a short talk by Professor Nessa Carey (a visiting professor of Imperial no less) about what exactly Epigenetics is. This was perfect for me, who knew very little about it other than the name and that it was something vaguely about bits that sit on DNA but weren’t DNA. She is a brilliant speaker! My sister has her book, and I wish I’d got it signed.
Her method of explaining epignetics involved a model built out of marshmallows and jelly tots and strawberry laces and it was sweet (heheheh).
So yeah epigenetics is about jelly tots that stick out of marshmallows and tell the marshmallow genes whether or not to be expressed, which is why a liver cell isn’t an eye cell and your nose doesn’t have teeth on it etc etc.
It is also how a queen bee and a worker bee are so different but have identical DNA and how a larvae and a fly are those things. These jelly tots can sometimes be passed on down a few generations and are affected by lifestyle factors, so can basically be used as another excuse to make you feel guilty about stressing or eating badly or whatever. If you eat that doughnut, your children will be punished.
This is a really interesting subject which I am definitely going to read more about, so I think I’ll leave it there for now!

Festival of the spoken nerd
This was comedy and I won’t ruin any of the routines, but there were spreadsheets, googleplexes, Cheryl Cole with a science degree, walruses beat-boxing and a discussion of 4D shapes that makes me want to spend the rest of time just trying to get my head around them. Seriously. 4D shapes are the best. I now have a picture of myself wearing the 3D shadow of the 4D equivalent of a Möbius strip knitted into a hat with stripes the sizes of the successive digits of pi. If you dare to go full nerd, go!

Other significant things

Some other bursary students and I went and got scrummy pizza 🙂

We met an awesome theoretical Physicist who comes to the festival every year, who designs telescopes in his spare time and is fascinated by so many varied things he was a lovely person to talk to.

The marshmallow-epigenetics-Imperial person from above answered one of my friend’s questions by telling us about this experiment:

A mouse is kept in a cage with another larger, aggressive mouse. It learns to fear the aggressor and becomes timid and fearful. It is then bred with a female mouse and the baby mice turn out small, weak and equally fearful.
It was thought that some epigenetic change in their father had been passed on, but then the experiment was repeated, except with artificial insemination to replace mating, so the female mouse never actually met the male mouse.
The babies, this time were born as regular mice. Not smaller, not more afraid.
It turns out that rather than the epigenetic explanation, the mother had recognised that the male was an inferior mouse to mate with and had probably in some way cut off essential things that the first set of babies needed to become average mice, because they were likely to be weak and not survive anyway, if they inherited what her mouse senses thought were caused by the male’s poor genes.

On that weird note, goodnight.


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