Reflecting self

Self-portrait of Rosetta during Mars flybySelfies. Definitely notorious in the digital world. Who hasn’t wrinkled up their nose in disgust at a friend’s shameless self-promotion or puckered up a duck face for the camera?

Or maybe selfies power your voyage of exploration for personal acceptance, understanding and confidence.

Universally reviled, or defended as an act of self-expression. A moment of attention-grabbing vanity or an opportunity for reflection—what exactly is the deal?

Selfie history

The earliest selfie was recorded in days when point-and-click was more like click-run-stand very still. Today, due to digital cameras in general and the omnipresent smartphone in particular, more than one million self-portraits are taken and uploaded to social media every day.

Selfie fails

Analysts suggest that selfie-taking is narcissistic, that men posting selfies display signs of psychopathy and that all it really shows is that we haven’t moved on from self-obsessed toddlerhood.

Described as a marker of the YOLO generation, selfies provoke outrage and despair. It’s catchy to point the finger at

In case you were wondering, part II

Lake_Shalla_LandscapeWhat’s the helium situation? …and other updates on stories we covered last year.


Although we’re still not comfortable with the frivolous use of helium gas in party balloons, a recent discovery certainly gives MRI fans, astronauts and the boffins at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, reason to celebrate.

At the end of June this year, scientists from the University of Oxford and Durham University announced success in a helium hunt collaboration with Norwegian exploration firm Helium One. By combining traditional prospecting with seismic imaging and helium geochemistry, the team located the gas bubbling out of the ground in the Tanzanian East African Rift Valley. They estimate that this reserve might be as large as 1.5 billion cubic metres, or enough to fill around 1.2 million medical MRI scanners.

It may not look much, but it helped find enough helium for 1.2 million medical MRI scanners:

— Oxford University (@UniofOxford) June 28, 2016

Boo! Zombies are real!

512px-placid_deathWith Halloween just around the corner, how about a little creepy science for the season?

Zombies are real.

Yes, you read that one right. The undead do exist, and not just in fiction…but maybe I should clarify before you dive right back behind the sofa. Relax; it’s not a whole-body reanimated dead-to-alive apocalypse, just a finding from a group of researchers who saw that in death, a whole series of genes come to life.


Researchers Peter Noble, Alex Pozhitkov and colleagues at the University of Washington found that for a short period after death, certain cell activities seemed to rev up—a

Halley’s comet, impending doom and communicating science's_Comet_-_May_29_1910.jpgOn May 18, 1910, Halley’s comet made its closest recorded contact (0.15 astronomical units,* or approximately 23 million kilometres) with our planet, and the Earth passed through its tail. The event was full of scientific excitement and wonder, since photographic plates and spectroscopy were newly available to researchers. With these new tools, astronomers and the public got a better view of the comet itself and also a first inkling of what it contained.

Exciting times for science!

However, as the comet approached, the spectroscopy results revealed that among other gases, the comet’s tail showed strong band signatures for the toxic gas cyanogen. First synthesized in 1815, cyanogen is toxic, since it reduces rapidly to form cyanide and thus poisons the essential cytochrome c oxidase system to mess with mitochondrial function (not good). many chose to report the existence of the gas in the

How do I know it’s OK? Swimming through the science communications minefield

Peanut butter for non-allergic babies may reduce later allergies: #BehindTheHeadlines

— NHS Choices (@NHSChoices) February 25, 2015

How do I know it’s OK? This often goes through my mind when I’m writing about science. The mere fact that I’m a scientist doesn’t give me authority to write about science: my own research field was unbelievably narrow, and my PhD represents only a tiny fraction of even that field. As with all PhDs, for a short time, yes, I was the world expert in my tiny piece of the science kingdom, but no, that still does not make me an authority on science in general.

What it does mean is that 99.99% of the science writing I do needs research. It was relatively easy researching for my PhD; I knew the subject matter and had unlimited academic access to primary research journals. Nowadays my access is more limited, since most peer-reviewed publications are behind a paywall. I rely on open-access information readily available on the Internet and the journals that my college library holds (yes, lifelong learning—that’s me!). In addition, since the topic is usually outside my area of expertise, I