What is a species?

I was listening to a podcast the other day (The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe – I recommend it) which featured an item about the number of species that have been described. This got me thinking about that age-old headcracker: What is a species?

People’s first introduction to the idea of a species usually includes a definition relating to interbreeding. That is, species are defined as groups of organisms that can or do interbreed. Groups of organisms that do not interbreed, or where the product of any interbreeding is not fertile (such as mules and ligers), are separate species.

But when you remember that not all species are fluffy mammals, this definition becomes problematic. There are issues such as hybrids, which result when groups that are quite different usually do not interbreed, but occasionally do. Are such groups different species or not? But the main issue to my mind is that of the huge numbers of organisms that reproduce asexually – things like bacteria and fungi and many plants. Clearly a definition of a species related to interbreeding will not work for organisms that do not breed at all.

As a biochemist, I am enamoured with genetic approaches, which look at differences in the genomes of different populations to get an idea of which groups form distinct species. Such approaches may operate by construction of ‘trees of life’, and finding points where genetic changes resulted in the creation of two lineages. Such lineages thus form separate species. But this is still a problematic approach, as lineages that appear to be splitting can still interbreed (think of evidence suggesting that ancient humans interbred with Neanderthals and other hominids). There can also be no rule as to how much genetic difference constitutes a species ‘borderline’ – there is not necessarily a correlation between the extent of differences in genetics, and differences in appearance or behaviour (traits), aspects that are central to our thinking on what constitutes a species.

The genetic route also cannot always be followed. Think of palaeontology; often all we have to go on to study organisms that have existed in the past is the fossil record, which provides no genetic material. Here, judgements about species are made based on what the organism looked like, where it fits in wider fossil record, and any clues about behaviour that can be picked up from where the fossil is found. There are clear potential issues with such judgements. Imagine palaeontologists of the future finding remains of a chihuahua and a great dane; they would instantly classify these finds as two different species, while we consider them both dogs.

In thinking about this, I realised that the ‘species problem’, as it is known, is an excellent example of how science is not the objective gathering of knowledge that we are so often taught to think it is. The existence of certain species is not a ‘fact’ of the world that is waiting to be identified by us. Rather, the idea of species is an imposition of our need to classify, to label, to impose an idea that helps us to better understand and describe the world in which we live. There are indeed very different organisms out there, and it is helpful to look at the differences and what they mean, and to attach different names to different things so we know what we are talking about. But underneath, we must remember that these borderlines that we think of in fact do not really exist. As is blindingly obvious when you think about the process of evolution, life is really just one thing, based on the same principles everywhere on earth (as far as we know), and expressing itself in a glorious variety of ways. Over time, changes have occurred that produced this variety, but these changes have been and still are gradual, so that it is nonsense to think that there are lines that could be drawn to show where one species became another. Indeed, any such lines would be completely arbitrary, and a result only of our purely human perspective.

I often think of this quote from Ernest Rutherford (possibly): “All science is either physics or stamp collecting.” I was instinctively annoyed by that quote when I first heard it, and it occasionally resurfaces in my head to bug me. Pondering on the question of species has made me smile, through the realisation that the classification of organisms into species – pretty much the most ‘stamp collecting’ aspect of science I can think of – has ultimately led to this realisation that it is the underlying processes of evolution and speciation that is the real point of interest, showing how biology is every bit a dynamic, investigative science that is concerned with the forces that shape the world in which we live.

Runway numbers and magnetic rambling

I love it when I discover factual snippets that I really should have picked up years ago. I’ve been interested in planes and airports for as long as I can remember; my Dad used to take me to Amsterdam airport as a treat, and as a teenager I did a school physics project on the sound levels surrounding the same airport. Somewhere, I picked up that airport runways are numbered at each end, and I’m pretty sure I worked out that the numbers were to do with the orientation of the runway. But, my assumption was that it was the geographical orientation that determined the number. Only the other day, listening to a podcast about the Earth’s core, did I realise that it’s the orientation relative to the Earth’s magnetic field that’s what counts. And because the magnetic field has the tendency to shift about, the numbers sometimes change. I didn’t know that. Cool.

Using the magnetic field to identify runways makes sense to me from a navigational point of view. The numbers are related to the compass direction, or the angle of the runway relative to magnetic north. So, if landing in a due east direction, 90° relative to magnetic north, the runway will be called runway 9 (so the actual angle is rounded to the nearest 10 – a runway at 86° would also be runway 9). In practice, I guess this mainly functions as an additional visual clue that you’re landing on the correct bit of the planet. I’m sure pilots aren’t using this information to decide how to position their planes, navigation being a little more sophisticated these days.

But seeing that the number you’re heading for on the ground makes sense compared to what you expect it to be and what your compass says must be comforting, and I suppose that’s why the system is still used and why the runway numbers are updated when required (e.g. in Jersey last year).

The Earth’s magnetic field is attributed to the dynamo effect. Electric currents present in the Earth’s molten core give rise to the magnetic field. As far as I can tell, we don’t exactly know where these currents come from, but we do know that they change over time, which means that the position of the Earth’s magnetic poles shifts; magnetic north is currently travelling north-northwest by about 55 km per year. (Putting that into geological context, the Atlantic Ocean is growing wider by only 1 centimetre a year. 55 km/year is a number that made my eyebrows meet my hairline.) This speed appears to be causing runway numbers to require changing every 5–10 decades, depending on location.

What I also hadn’t realised, is that the north and south magnetic poles are not antipodal, i.e. directly on opposite sides of the planet. Looking at the experimentally determined dip poles, or the places where the magnetic field lines actually disappear vertically into the ground, I thought they were surprisingly off-kilter. Just looking at the latitude, magnetic north is currently at 86°N (also known as ‘not that far from geographic north’), but magnetic south is at 64°S (also known as ‘not even within Antarctica’) (source). I can’t help thinking that we should really have picked terms for the magnetic poles that didn’t overlap with geographic terms.

Time to talk

I’m writing this post for Time to Talk Day – taking (a little more than) 5 minutes to talk about mental health, and also because I made a pledge last year to be more open about my mental health issues. Thank you for taking the time to read it, if you do. To pre-empt any feelings of concern that may arise: I am absolutely fine now. This piece is not asking for sympathy, it is asking for awareness.

I have suffered from depression and anxiety, on and off, for almost as long as I can remember. Certainly since my early teens, probably before – though it’s hard to diagnose from this distance in time and emotional development. The causes appear to be complex – a mix of stress, the effect of certain experiences, unhelpful mental habits, and an in-built predisposition. There have been several times when I have been too ill to work for weeks at a time. More frequently, I have continued to push myself to lead a ‘normal’ life, which at times has required enormous effort.

Depression for me is a very bleak place. It is a place of Nothing. No emotion, no engagement, no feeling of worth. There is only fog and tired; the only desire is the desire to not be seen. I know I am stressed when I start crying a lot; I know I’m depressed when I stop.

I consider myself one of the lucky ones.

While I have been very low at times, I have never actively considered looking for a way out. And I am getting better. My last major episode was in November 2013. Since then, despite some stress last year, I’ve been pretty good. I know the warning signs and know how to manage them. Others are not so lucky. Try as they may, they don’t get better. Or they are no longer here.

While I have been off work at times, I have been able to develop a successful career. And while I have never felt comfortable discussing my illness with colleagues (barring a couple of close friends), I have always had understanding managers and employers. Others are not so lucky. They have lost jobs, livelihoods.

While I have sometimes had a hard time socialising, and have lost one or two friends, I have always had caring and supportive people around me when I was ill. Others are not so lucky. Maybe they had no-one to start with, or maybe they were abandoned after they fell ill, but ultimately, they are left to try to fight seriously debilitating illnesses alone.

We all know people who suffer from mental illness. The official stats say 1 in 4 people are affected every year, but because many people don’t talk about these things there could be many more. Despite this, the support, treatment, funding, research available for mental health issues is far less than the resources put towards physical conditions that are less common, and no less debilitating, than mental illnesses.

The emotional costs of mental illness are huge. Not just to the people who suffer from these illnesses themselves, but also to their families, friends and loved ones.

The economic costs are also huge. I’ve probably lost about 60–70 working days due to mental illness, to the cost of my employers. My university were good enough to give me a month’s extra undergraduate funding to compensate for time lost due to illness. Health services in two countries have provided me with mediction to manage my symptoms. I have paid over £4000 for four years of talking therapy. As I said, I’m one of the lucky ones.

I truly believe that these costs will become easier to manage if we as a society become more accepting and understanding of mental health issues. If people are able to be open about their issues, and receive understanding and support rather than being stigmatised, they will be able to cope better. Yes, there need to be better support services, better treatments through the NHS, and we’ll fight for that. But we can all make life a bit easier for each other, just by listening, understanding, and not judging.

Thanks for doing that.

Minding the gender gap from both sides

Every year we see headlines in the press drawing our attention to underrepresentation of girls in A Level subjects such as physics, maths and computer science. Similarly, there is a seemingly constant stream of articles describing the gender gap in certain occupations. Being a science graduate myself I am particularly drawn to articles referring to the situation in the sciences, where I find it interesting to note that the intake at university level in many scientific fields is pretty even, but the attrition rate among women through the various stages of degree and career is higher than among men, resulting in a pronounced gender gap over time even in subjects where uptake at A Level is balanced or even weighted towards girls, such as chemistry and biology.

Such findings are widely seen as a bad thing, with the suggestion that girls and women are not fulfilling their potential in subjects such as science, or are missing out on the careers that they want. Despite the recognition that there will always be plenty of girls who are simply not interested in science, I share such concerns. However, I have always had an instinctive aversion against measures such as quotas, and recruitment campaigns specially aimed at girls.

I also know I am not the only one who reacts to such articles along the lines of ‘Why are we worried about this, but not about the lack of boys taking English at A Level, or the underrepresentation of men in careers such as social work or primary school teaching?’. I assume the answer to this is that people assume that any boys or men who did want to pursue such options would not encounter any barriers, and therefore we can relax in the confidence that most simply don’t want to. This ties in with the more general feminist view that, in our society, men can do what they like, and women still face all sorts of brick walls.

Again, I have instinctively never quite bought into this view. We are all constrained by forces that operate within society; this includes members dominant groups, who may actually find it harder than most to contradict the stereotype. If, traditionally, ‘male’ occuppations have been valued more than ‘female’ ones, then women trying to break into male occupations are seen to be ‘aspirational’, whereas men taking on a traditionally female role may be seen as selling themselves short. Surely, though, if we believe in gender equality and equal opportunity, if we believe that men and women have very few inherent differences in terms of ability and what they want out of life, then we should be suspicious of gender gaps in any area of life.

I’m currently conducting a degree research project on women in science, and have been studying existing research on such issues as attitudes towards career aspirations for men and women. I have just read this article, which has crystallised much of my thinking with regard to the points described above. Andre Ndobo gave secondary school children in France vignettes describing a fictional child’s career aspriation, and asked their opinion on whether the choice was suitable. The vignettes concerned either a boy or a girl, and the career choice was either gender normative (social worker for girls, building technician for boys) or the ‘opposite’ role. The results showed that boys taking part in the study mostly supported the gender-traditional roles. They felt that choosing the non-traditional gender role was a bad choice for both boys and girls, and backed this up with traditional ideas such as men being physically stronger, and women being more caring and altruistic. Girls on the other hand were on the whole more supportive of non-traditional occupation choice, and expressed the views that differences between the sexes were minimal, and that motivation could make up for any such differences.

Now, this is only one study, and the French cultural setting is not necessarily representative for UK society (though I’d argue it’s not a million miles away), but if you’ll allow some wild extrapolation there are a number of interesting implications here. Firstly, and most encouragingly, it would appear that the girls in this study have taken on board the message of gender equality, and that they can do anything they put their mind to. That’s excellent. However, the boys have not. So, when we’re asking why girls aren’t taking A Level physics, or women are dropping out of scientific careers, perhaps the issue has less to do with any lack of confidence or interest. Perhaps, the more traditional views held by boys and men are constraining girls’ choices, whether subtly or overtly, whether a girl avoids the sciences because she doesn’t want to be shunned by her male peers, or whether a woman fails to gain research tenure because the men doing the hiring do not feel she should be there, or whether a women cuts short her career because of the strength of her husband’s feelings with regard to traditional family roles.

Perhaps, if we are concerned about the participation of women in the sciences (and maths, and engineering, and computer science, and Michelin-starred cheffing, and any other area you’d care to mention), there is more to be gained by trying to change boys’ and men’s views, than girls’ and women’s.

I think this is important from the point of view of protecting equality for boys and men, too. As I hinted above, I do not necessarily believe that men are completely free to choose, and this research shows up how this might work in practice. A boy choosing to take subjects perceived as feminine, or to follow a traditionally female career option, goes against the prevailing attitudes among his male peers. That can be a tough position to take, and so some boys may find themselves making choices for reasons of conformity rather than to follow their inclinations.

So, I don’t think we can be blase about gender gaps of either flavour. If we truly want to achieve gender equality, for the benefit of increasing freedom of opportunity both men and women (and I think that would be a good thing), then we should aim to normalise non-gender traditional career choices for both sexes.

Thinking, Fast and Slow – book review

Wow. I mean, just wow.

I love non-fiction. I am interested in a lot of things, so I can find something to like in pretty much any non-fiction book, as long as I learn something from it. No matter how poorly written, poorly structured, over-long or under-researched, there’s ususally something there to enjoy.

But a really good – I mean exquisitely good – non-fiction book is a rare gem. A non-fiction book that is well written, well structured, well researched, and still easy to read and entertaining, is a thing to be savoured and then treasured.

And this is one of them. It took me six months to read, but not because it was a slog. It is a long book, but all of it was interesting, and I wanted to make sure I was understanding everything I read rather than skimming over it and not getting anything from it.

This book is based on the research that Daniel Kahneman himself (with others, of course) performed over the past four decades or so. That means that he really knows what he is talking about. And while it does not always follow that the person who knows everything about a subject in is the person who will communicate it best, Kahneman does a good job. He is patient enough to explain things in a way that the lay(ish) reader will understand, and human enough to realise that adding in the odd joke and anecdote will help the story slip along.

There is a lot of detail in this book, so I’m glad there is a helpful summary at the end to help re-emphasise what the key points are. (And to help the writers of reviews what they’ve been reading over the past months!)

Key point 1: Within the brain there are processes that run ‘automatically’, and processes that require actual active thinking power to make them happen. Kahneman uses the terms ‘System 1’ and ‘System 2’, respectively to characterise these different types of processes. We shouldn’t think of them as actual systems – there aren’t two different parts of the brain that work in different ways – but this characterisation helps in understanding how the brain processes stuff in different ways. System 1 is quick and intuitive and makes a lot of decisions for us in daily life without us noticing, but it is also impulsive and prone to bias. System 2 is considered and methodical, but also slow, clunky and lazy. Using System 2 takes more effort, so we must apply it where the application of these precious thinking resources will gain the most reward.

Thinking about these two systems explains many things about how we think. One of my favourite bits is System 1’s search for ‘ease’. Because System 1 wants ‘ease’, it likes things that are familiar; if things have been encountered before then no extra thinking is required, and if nothing bad is associated with them then these familiar things must be ‘good’ and ‘true’, and this puts System 1 in a good mood. Therefore, things that feel familiar put you in a good mood. Advertising works in this way – once you have been exposed to a brand in various media outlets it begins to feel familiar. Then, when you are in a shop, somehow that brand stands out – you feel just a little better about buying that one than the others. If you put your System 2 at work, you would reason that you actually have no reason to prefer that brand – all washing powders work pretty much as well as each other after all, and it would be more rational just to buy the cheapest one. But System 2 is usually tool lazy to be employed in these situations, and so people are more likely to reach for the product that they recognise, because it actually makes them feel better.

Key point 2: Humans are not Econs. An Econ is an imaginary being that makes financial (and other) decisions for purely rational reasons. Economics was for a long time based on Econ-type decision making – i.e. this is how the economy works because people are rational in their decisions. Except that they are not, and it doesn’t.

Take the following vignette:

Today, Jack and Jill each have a wealth of 5 million.
Yesterday, Jack had 1 million and Jill had 9 million.
Are they equally happy today?

Your instinctive answer is no – Jack is delighted while Jill is pretty grumpy. However, if Jack and Jill were Econs, they would be equally happy today, because they would each attach the same utility (a measure for the psychological value of money) to the amount of 5 million. In the Econ’s happiness equation, the amount of money is directly proportional to level of happiness. But Humans don’t work that way. We are sensitive to changes in our circumstances and will always judge the present circumstance against what went before, and we are particularly sensitive to loss. A loss of a certain amount will be felt much more keenly than a gain in the same amount. Similarly, if Jack had gone from 1 to 4 million, and Jill from 9 to 6, Jill would probably still feel much less happy than Jack, even though she would still be worth 2 million more.

Other differences between Humans and Econs include how they evaluate the following statements:

100 out of 300 people will die
200 out of 300 people will live

To Econs, these statements are equivalent – as indeed logically they are. But the wording, or framing, of the statement makes a lot of difference to Humans. If the consequences of a measure are framed as in the second statement, Humans feel much more positive about it than if it is framed as in the first. This of course has massive real-world implications, as anyone who has good (or bad) reason to try to convince people to act in a particular way knows. Or indeed anyone who wants to sell newspapers; the Daily Mail specialise in this kind of thing. Reporting that some healthy living measure cuts the risk of stroke by 50% is going to attract a lot more readers than stating that it reduces the risk of stroke from 4% to 2%, yet the two statements are equivalent.

I loved this part of the book in particular. I disliked economics when I learnt it at school because I couldn’t see how it applied to the real world. It was all mathematics and graphs but none of what I was learning seemed to tally with how the world actually behaved. Some years ago, I started seeing economics as a behavioural science rather than a mathematical one, and it immediately became fascinating. Understanding how Humans differe from Econs gives a lot of insight into real-world economics.

Key point 3: We can understand ourselves as having two ‘selves’ – the experiencing self and the remembering self. The experiencing self is who we think we are – the person in the here and now enjoying or hating whatever is going on at the moment. We think we make decisions based on our experiencing self, i.e. that we make decisions based at what we think will cause us the most joy or the least discomfort. But actually, those decisions are based on the remembering self, and the memories can be quite at odds with the actual experience.

The cold-hand experiment is a common method of assessing experience of pain in different scenarios – holding your hand in cold water (within a certain range of temperatures) causes pain but no permanent damage. In one particular experiment, participants were given two cold-hand trials. One was shorter and all at one temperature, and the other was longer but the water got warmer towards the end. Participants were then told they had to undergo another trial, but could choose which one. They overwhelmingly chose the second trial, even though this involved a larger amount of pain overall. The decision was based on the remembering self; experiences at the beginning, peak (e.g. peak joy or peak pain) and end of an event are most important in how the remembering self evaluates an experience. So, in this experiment, the remembering self found the second trial more attractive because of the sense of lessening of discomfort towards the end, when the water was made a little warmer. The amount of pain in the final moments of the trial was given more weight than the overall amount of pain.

This is just a taste of the snippets of interesting (to my mind) information contained in this book. There is no way I can do justice to all of it, so I’m going to stop trying. You’ll have to find out the rest for yourself. As per the back-cover quote from Richard Thaler: ‘Buy it fast. Read it slowly.’

Of sperm, racism and lazy journalism

Flipping through the Comment is Free page on the Guardian website is an exercise in masochism at the best of times, but every now and then I find something that really makes my blood boil. On Friday, I found this piece, in which Julie Bindel comments on a court case currently taking place in the US. A lesbian couple are suing a sperm bank for providing them with sperm from a black donor, rather than the white donor they had selected. Bindel calls the couple out for being racist, and comments on how the act of sperm selection more generally ‘smacks of eugenics’.

Well, to me this smacks of lazy journalism.

I am not completely comfortable with the ‘claim culture’ that exists in the US, and increasingly in the UK, and I’m not sure I agree a lawsuit is the right course of action in this case. Be that as it may, the simple fact appears to be that the couple entered into a commercial contract with a company in which the company agreed to supply a particular product, the company in fact provided a different product, this fact was uncovered at a point where it could no longer be ‘exchanged’ and its use had significant consequences (one of the mothers was four months pregnant by that point).

If I ordered a white washing machine and was delivered a black one, I would not be happy and would demand some form of redress by the merchant – presumably an exchange of the wrongly delivered product for the one I actually ordered. Such an exchange was not possible in this case, and moreover the result of this error was much more serious than ruining my interior design. As described in this piece in the New York Daily News, the couple live in a rural, conservative, predominantly white area in Ohio. Being a lesbian couple in such a neighbourhood is, I imagine, difficult enough. While many of us are intelligent and grown-up enough to truly believe that people of all races are equal, it also seems pretty obvious to me raising a mixed-race child in such a situation brings difficulties. I don’t see where racism comes into it.

At the end of Bindel’s piece is the following statement: ‘if the child you end up with does not exactly fit your ideal requirements, you can’t give it back – and nor should you even suggest that something bad has happened to you’. I find this quite an outrageous thing to say. It implies that this couple view their child as sub-ideal, that they would want to give her back. I see no evidence for this. One of the girls’ mothers speaks in the video on the NY Daily News site, and it is clear that she and her partner love their child. There is a suggestion that the couple is planning to move to a more diverse neighbourhood, to take care of their daughter’s psychological well-being.

This act of asking for compensation here seems to be more to do with the fact that the error made by the company has caused this family difficulties that would not have occurred if they had received the sperm sample they selected in the first place, rather than the couple not wanting a ‘brown’ baby.

Indeed, the only piece of evidence in this story that I can see could be used to argue that the couple are racist, is that they selected sperm from a white donor in the first place. But we can’t see inside their heads. It is possible that they selected a white donor because they had considered the resulting baby would better fit in the community in which they lived. It is possible that they didn’t really think about the issue at all, but that they chose a white donor because – well – they’re white themselves and it is what they are familiar with. There is a difference between selecting a white donor, and expressly not selecting a black one. I doubt anyone would call a black couple racist for selecting a black sperm donor.

Note that I am not categorically saying that this couple is not racist – I don’t know – but in the absence of convincing evidence I think calling names is untoward. I do have one question mark regarding their consideration for their child’s welfare, and that is their decision to file the lawsuit. Surely, at some age, their daughter will find out about all this, and it is not hard to imagine that she will take it as ‘my parents didn’t want me’. What a sad thing that would be for any child to think. I can only hope her mothers have carefully considered how they will handle that situation.

There is the wider issue that Bindel raises that perhaps does deserve some discussion, which is the fact that couples can select so many attributes about their sperm donor – this is where the eugenics claim comes in. Is it right that people can do this? Is it right to offer such a mechanism through which prospective parents can efficiently exercise all their prejudices?

Well, don’t we offer that mechanism to everyone? In couples who are lucky enough to be able to procreate the natural way, a comprehensive process of attribute selection has already taken place. A woman’s selection of her ‘sperm donor’ (otherwise known as husband or boyfriend) will involve her attempting to ensure the presence of attributes she considers acceptable, and the absence of attributes she considers unacceptable. A man’s selection of his ‘egg donor’ proceeds along the same principles. Yes, in both natural reproduction, and reproduction through donors, there will be people who make decisions for reasons that society considers unacceptable. There are people who are racist, elitist, heightist, and any other kind of ‘ist’ that you care to think of. These prejudices will play a part in selecting the provider of genetic material for one’s child whatever the mechanism in which that child is produced. It would seem unreasonable to remove that freedom from people who, for whatever reason, have to resort to donated sperm or eggs in order to have a family.

In short, simplistic opinion piece on newspaper website annoyed me. I should be used to it by now…

Disclaimer: I am white, straight and (voluntarily) childless, and am therefore probably unqualified to comment on many aspects of this story. I realise that, and am quite happy to accept that some of what I have said above is worth challenging. Let’s keep it polite eh.

Is science more difficult to explain and understand than other subjects?

I came across this article on the art of explaining science through a post on LinkedIn. There was a bit of discussion going on in the comments about whether science is intrinsically harder to explain than other subjects. One comment suggested that science is indeed harder to explain than e.g. art, music, literature and politics. This blog post is an adaptation of the comment I made in response.

Really, is science harder to explain than music?

Most of us enjoy music, but we are laypeople regarding true understanding of music. Science is not much different. Science is the objective study of nature, and this can be enjoyed immensely by laypeople. I spent a huge amount of time as a young child observing the heavens, looking at creepy crawlies, learning about aeroplanes, and so on. At that point in my life I enjoyed science in the same way as I now enjoy music.

But really understanding music is a completely different beast. To be able to create musical masterpieces requires an understanding of harmonics, phrasing, the sound qualities of different instruments, and so much more that I can’t list because I don’t know about it. I could not begin to explain why Saint-Saens’ Dance Macabre is at the same time so pleasing and so unsettling, I just know that it is. I certainly would not know where to start to create a piece of such complexity, how to layer up the different instruments so that the complete sound makes sense. To me, music on that level is incomprehensible in the same way as pharmaceutical chemistry, say, is to many other people.

The difference to me is the way that these subjects are commonly written about in the general media. Music is written about in the sense of ‘does the reviewer enjoy this or not’. More knowledgable reviewers will delve into how this music compares to other music within the genre, and what influences are detectable, but I have never read an article about music that required me to give any consideration of the technical complexities of composition. Also, there are great debates in music (I was a teenager in the 90s so my example is Blur vs Oasis), but ultimately they don’t make that much difference in our lives – there is no pressure on the layman to form an understanding of the musical concepts involved to settle the debate.

Science, however, has massive effects on our lives. It is actually important for non-scientists to understand the arguments involved in the climate debate, in energy sustainability, in antibiotic resistance, in homeopathy, and so many more. These are matters of life and death. I think this is why science seems harder to understand than other subjects: because we HAVE to. But not everyone has the training.

Now, for this comment I fairly arbitrarily picked music from the list of topics on offer, but I could have written a similar argument about any of them. In fact, I think the same is true for any subject that people spend years taking degrees in and become experts on. If these subjects were easy to explain and understand, there wouldn’t be degrees offered in them because we would all just pass the information on to each other as part of our lives.

And music was perhaps not the best choice. Very swiftly I received the comment that many of the difficult aspects of music I mentioned – harmonics, phrasing, sound quality – could be categorised as science rather than music. Well, that’s true, but it’s the science of music, and inherent to good understanding. And as every scientist knows: everything is science! 😉