Archive for the ‘Cosmic insignificance’ Category

Getting the bird

January 11, 2011

In which Dr Aust ponders language and its obscurities.

You lookin' at my bird?

One of Dr Aust’s current nightly rituals is reading a bedtime story to one, or both, children.

This evening we were reading a story – one of this charming series – which contained the word:


This reminded Dr Aust of an event, over a dozen years ago now, which exemplifies the problems with language (and perhaps also cultural differences) that can turn up unexpectedly in Universities.

The story concerns an exam sat by our undergraduate medical students some time in the mid to late 1990s. Back in those days we academics used to, as they say, “invigilate” all the exams ourselves. Nowadays we have special people – often retired academics – who do this, and the word “Invigilate!” instead tends to conjure up for me a vision of someone casting a spell in a Harry Potter book. But in those days, we would be there ourselves to hand out the exam papers and terrify the students with dire announcements about the consequences of cheating, or inadvertently having any notes about your person. Then we would spend a few hours patrolling the exam room trying to look grim and/or spot students with suspect programmable calculators.

Next, you need to know what sort of exam it was. This was what we called a “Case paper”, in which the students were presented with a short medical case history. The idea was that they should try and figure out what was going on, first trying to recognise so-called “cues”, and symptoms, in the history, and then suggest what kinds of tests or investigations they would order.

The particular case in this exam paper involved a man called “Mr Polly” (sic) who kept budgerigars. The birds actually appeared in the first line, which went something like:

“Mr Polly was devoted to his budgerigars, and kept several dozen in a shed at the back of his house. They were his pride and joy.”

Now, you need to know that the word “bird” appeared nowhere in the exam paper, though “budgerigar” was in there several times.

Perhaps you can guess what happened next.

A student stuck their hand up.

Dr Aust hurried over. Students sticking their hands up in exams are not unusual, since requests for extra paper, or to be allowed to visit the toilet facilities, were a regular part of invigilating then and doubtless still are. Of course, a minute or two after the exam started was a little bit early.

Dr Aust asked the student what s/he wanted.

The student replied nervously “I don’t understand this word”.

…And pointed to the word “budgerigar”.

This put Dr Aust in a bit of a quandary. He was a fairly junior academic at the time, and was not one of the people who had actually set the exam paper, so he didn’t really feel he had the authority to just tell the student that a budgerigar was a small bird. Scanning the paper, Dr Aust hunted for something else that might offer a clue. His eye fell on a passage more or less like this:

“One day, Mr Polly felt short of breath and a bit faint – walking up the stairs was an effort. Nonetheless, he was determined to attend to his budgerigars. Whilst cleaning out his aviary, he became dizzy and breathless and collapsed. His wife found him and called an ambulance”

Dr Aust pointed at this last sentence and whispered to the student:

“This sentence should help you. Look at this word. he said, underlining the word aviary.

The student, who judging by appearance and accent was clearly from outside the UK, looked panic-stricken.

“I don’t know what that word means either” s/he said.

Which is an object lesson, I guess, in being careful what words to use. And in what settings. Especially settings where it is difficult for people to ask clarifying questions.

The story does have a happy ending. After a few words with the Senior Examiner who had set the paper, we decided to make an announcement to all those in the exam hall to tell them that a budgerigar was a small parrot.

It turned out afterwards that several other students had been equally flummoxed by “budgerigar” and “aviary”, though most had not put their hands up.

Over the years I have sometimes wondered if any of those flummoxed students, now doubtless many years qualified in medicine and quite possibly GPs and consultants in the NHS, have ever again encountered the words “budgerigar” or “aviary”.


PS Mr Polly’s complaint, which I dare say all my medical readers will have guessed, goes by the common name of “Bird Fancier’s Lung”, and is a form of extrinsic allergic alveolitis or hypersensitivity pneumonitis (more here).

PPS Language and comprehension is, of course, an issue in many settings in academia, and more so in medicine. Dr Aust has always (he hopes) been reasonably good at spotting – mostly from the non-verbal cues – when people working in his lab did not understand what he was saying, and adjusting his language accordingly. Not everyone does, though. One eminent Professor I knew was famous in the Department for fixing non-English-native-speaking research assistants with his most gimlet gaze and then saying, in his slowest and loudest voice:

“Do. You. Understand?”

The joke was that he often did this to people who came from cultures where to admit that you hadn’t understood the Great Man’s pearls of wisdom would be a terrible source of shame, and also a grave slight to the Eminent Professor. Thus the unfortunate subordinate would nod meekly, and the Great Man would depart satisfied that he had got his meaning across. Whereupon Dr Aust and the other more junior lab people would explain to the quivering research assistant what the Prof had been saying.

A slightly different problem arises for doctors who work in countries where the language is not their native one. Apart from just the language, they have to cope with regional accents and dialects. In the UK they also have to cope with the British talent for slang and euphemisms.

When Mrs Dr Aust first arrived in the UK to work as a junior doctor in a North West England-shire hospital, she was presented with a glossary of “local terms that your patients may use”. The list ran to a fair few printed pages. I suspect it may have had some similarities to the Yorkshire one here, which was discussed by the august British Medical Journal a while back.


In one (y)ear and out the other

December 31, 2010

Happy New Year!

And just to let you know: I shall refrain from posting an end of year round-up.

I will however, make some predictions for this time next year – in case I am doing a round-up post then.

–  We will all be a year older (On the other hand, considering the alternatives….)

–  I will still feel knackered

–  Mrs Dr Aust will still feel three times as knackered (or more)

–  The kids will still be engaged in their ongoing competition for attention / psychological guerilla war / life-or-death struggle for access to their mothers’ lap

–  Junior Aust will have lost interest in Harry Potter and will instead be telling me the plot of some other complicated book.

–  The house will still be a tip.

–  UK Universities willl still be under financial pressure

–  The NHS will still be the subject of endless daft reforms.

–  I will still be pondering whether it is time to jack in blogging.

–  Mrs Dr Aust will still be mystified as to why I bother blogging at all.

–  The Homeopaths will still be talking utter transcendental raving nonsense.

[a classic recent example is here, which I think should really have the same title as the present post, given the author’s utter imperviousness to reason and reality]

–  So will the rest of the Alternative Medicine Fraternity (be talking nonsense, that is).

–  They will still have the enthusiastic support of Prince Charles, and of various medical grandees who suffer from “knight starvation”, or who crave HRH’s patronage

–  They will still get lots of laughably credulous media coverage, especially in the People’s Medical Journal

Now, I would usually add to this list

“-  I will still be pondering my next series of lectures”

But given what is happening in the Universities, and what is likely to happen this coming year, I’m not at all so sure about that as I would have been even a year ago. One of my best friends and scientific colleagues, who does his own experiments and busily cranks out three papers a year, is taking voluntary early retirement next year.

He is 59.

Several other scientists I know in their mid to late 50s at other Universities have also bailed out. Most of them still had active research programmes and laboratories. One, I hear, has taken a part-time job as a lab technician. Another is teaching physiology in a medical school in Trinidad. Another is writing a book about fishing and working as a fishing guide.

Where that leaves those of us still aboard the Titanic, I mean “in the Universities”, is anyone’s guess.

I guess we will see.

Anyway, in the meantime, and ignoring the dark clouds on the horizon, I thought I should follow the always-excellent Dr Grumble and declare:

“The same procedure as EVERY year!”

Und ein fröhliches neues Jahr!

Universities need arts as well as science

December 6, 2010

In which Dr Aust notes that scientists, on the whole, do not think that Universities should only have science in them.

In Universities up and down the UK, University managers are considering the implications of the Government’s funding cuts.

All right all right… I KNOW we haven’t had the Parliamentary vote on raising tuition fees yet (coming this Thursday). And I also know that, in Dr Aust’s University and in many other comparable ones, the senior brains trust is perhaps hoping that they will get to charge the students a much-increased fee which will replace the lost direct funding. I know that.

But, as many people have already noted, the cuts in the direct funding are already written into the Treasury’s spreadsheets.

And most Universities are planning for significant real-terms cuts in the budget, whatever happens on Thursday.

Anyway… where was I?

Oh yes.

In Universities up and down the UK, University managers are considering the implications of the Government’s funding cuts.

In particular, the near-total cut of direct teaching funding for arts and many languages has people predicting that Universities will cut whole departments. The Arts Faculties are definitely nervous –and who can blame them.

Let me give you an example: I heard of one University where the science faculty declined to even circulate an announcement about the “Science is Vital “ campaign – the reason widely believed to be that the bosses didn’t want to send the University’s Arts Faculty a signal that scientists thought only science was important. Not that scientists DO think that – they don’t, on the whole – but the arts and humanities people are generally thought to be so twitchy that a “wrong signal” might spread mass panic. The “goodbye arts” idea is certainly widely prevalent among academics gossiping in places like the Times Higher Education comments threads.

Interestingly, the same pressures seem to be abroad in that bastion of the free market in University education, the USA. Conservative governments in the UK have never made any secret of their admiration for the US free market model in all things, and that definitely includes higher education. The fact that some US Universities are shutting arts programmes is thus hardly likely to bolster the confidence of arts academics in the UK.

However, there is at least one eloquent defence of arts programmes doing the rounds, spread from email inbox to twitter to email these last few weeks.

What is interesting about this one is that it comes from a scientist – the eminent enzymologist Greg Petsko, who works at Brandeis University in Massachusetts.

Petsko’s article is entitled “A Faustian Bargain”. In it he eviscerates, in a piece of sustained and forensic mockery, the President of the State University of New York at Albany (SUNY Albany), who announced the closure of several art programmes and departments. Petsko makes many telling points, among them that a broad education, including the arts, is actually useful to scientists. He also manages to skewer the tendency of all too many University leaderships to manage by fait accompli. Here is a sample:

“You did call a [University] “town meeting”, but it was to discuss your plan [for Department closures], not let the university craft its own. And you called that meeting for Friday afternoon on October 1st, when few of your students or faculty would be around to attend…

It seems to me that the way you went about [this] couldn’t have been more likely to alienate just about everybody on campus. In your position, I would have done everything possible to avoid that. I wouldn’t want to end up in the 9th Bolgia (ditch of stone) of the 8th Circle of the Inferno, where the great 14th century Italian poet Dante Alighieri put the sowers of discord. There, as they struggle in that pit for all eternity, a demon continually hacks their limbs apart, just as in life they divided others.

The Inferno is the first book of Dante’s Divine Comedy, one of the great works of the human imagination. There’s so much to learn from it about human weakness and folly. The faculty in your Italian department would be delighted to introduce you to its many wonders – if only you had an Italian department, which now, of course, you don’t.”

Petsko repeatedly uses the final motif –

“- if only you had an XYZ department, which now, of course, you don’t.”

– to skewer the Albany President mercilessly. He then goes on, near the end of the piece, to say the following – which should ring a loud bell with anyone who has been following the proposed changes to teaching funding in the UK Universities:

“As for the argument that the humanities don’t pay their own way, well, I guess that’s true, but it seems to me that there’s a fallacy in assuming that a university should be run like a business. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be managed prudently, but the notion that every part of it needs to be self-supporting is simply at variance with what a university is all about. You seem to value entrepreneurial programs and practical subjects that might generate intellectual property more than you do ‘old-fashioned’ courses of study. But universities aren’t just about discovering and capitalizing on new knowledge; they are also about preserving knowledge from being lost over time, and that requires a financial investment. There is good reason for it: what seems to be archaic today can become vital in the future.”

Petsko then gives two examples, one from science and one from arts and humanities. They are virology, which was in decline in the 1970s until HIV suddenly threw the shortage of virologists into sharp relief and gave the subject a new urgency; and middle eastern languages and culture, which were sparsely taught until the events of September 11th 2001 and their aftermath.

He continues:

“I know one of your arguments is that not every place should try to do everything. Let other institutions have great programs in classics or theater arts, you say; we will focus on preparing students for jobs in the real world. Well, I hope I’ve just shown you that the real world is pretty fickle about what it wants. The best way for people to be prepared for the inevitable shock of change is to be as broadly educated as possible, because today’s backwater is often tomorrow’s hot field. And interdisciplinary research, which is all the rage these days, is only possible if people aren’t too narrowly trained. If none of that convinces you, then I’m willing to let you turn your institution into a place that focuses on the practical, but only if you stop calling it a university and yourself the President of one. You see, the word ‘university’ derives from the Latin ‘universitas’, meaning ‘the whole’. You can’t be a university without having a thriving humanities program. You will need to call SUNY Albany a trade school, or perhaps a vocational college, but not a university. Not anymore.”


Are liberal arts degrees a solution to the UK funding problem?

Petsko makes various references to the liberal arts educational model – common in US undergraduate degrees – where students take a broad spectrum of courses. This is something my friend Prof David Colquhoun has been writing about recently as a possible part solution here in the UK.

In Petsko’s view, these set-ups provide a way that more “profit-making” subjects (or, in the UK context, ones the Govt is still going to provide some teaching funding for) could subsidise subjects which make less money. For instance, if students taking science as their “major” subject were also required to take courses like composition, and/or rhetoric, then you could have people in, for instance, Classics departments whose teaching duties might primarily be teaching rhetoric to non-classics students. There is even a sort of parallel here with “service” teaching in science departments. This is a system, common historically in UK Universities with medical schools, where some people in the science departments mainly teach subjects like physiology or pharmacology to medical and other health science students.

As the cuts have loomed larger, there have been many eloquent defences of both the intrinsic value of the arts, and also of the economic usefulness of subjects other than hard sciences. For instance, Kieron Flanagan recently pointed me to this defence of humanities and social sciences. And there is Stefan Collini’s truly magisterial deconstruction of the Browne Review, on which the Govt’s proposed changes are based, in the London Review of Books here.

However, let’s stick to science and University science teaching – on the basis that one should concentrate on talking about things one knows something about. The central point that I would make, along with Petsko, is that studying science – or, at least, studying for a modern science BSc degree – does not teach you everything that scientists need to know. You might, indeed, get some of the other stuff from things like the arts. Or from literature. Or from reading newspapers. Or from writing, and communicating, about science to non-scientists

And again; as a scientist, I find the argument that a scientific training and education is useful entirely, or even primarily, because it is “vocational” quite flawed. It is a commonplace among me and my scientific colleagues that the primary value of our degree is NOT entirely, or even particularly “vocational”, i.e. in training more scientists. The value lies in training critical thinkers who also happen to be scientists. But training critical thinkers is something that all academic disciplines hopefully do – indeed, I would see it as a key purpose of all Higher Education. I am quite certain the arts and humanities pride themselves on instilling critical thinking, as well as producing “lifelong learners”, and all the other buzzwords.

Finally, there is the question on how the culture of Universities will change, if the arts are hit hard. This was, of course, where we started with Prof Petsko’s satirical tour-de-force. But I will leave the last word to an eminent British scientist and Professor I know, writing in the pages of the Times Higher Education a few months back. His short letter does not have Petsko’s rhetoric, or sustained scorn and humour, but it serves equally to make the point that scientists do not generally think that Universities should only do science:

“…..As with every time new [higher education] “world rankings” are published, I find myself scratching my head.

Am I missing something? Card-carrying professional scientist that I am, it still completely eludes me how institutions such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or the California Institute of Technology (or even our own Imperial College London [1]), which, as far as I know, have absolutely no arts faculties of any size, shape or form, can possibly be considered superior “universities” to the likes of Oxford, Cambridge, the University of California, Berkeley or Yale.

Did someone change what a “university” is while I wasn’t looking?”

To which the answer seems to be:

“No, but the UK coalition government seem to be inclined to give it a try.”

I do hope, myself, that they don’t succeed.


[1] Before Alice Bell tells me off, we should say that Imperial Colege haz duz: see here.

Note: You can find a list of all Petsko’s columns, written for the journal Genome Biology, here – and a link to download a kind of eBook compendium of them (if you are an iPhone/iPod type) is here.

It’s three years of Spleen – anyone still out there?

September 22, 2010

In which Dr Aust is vaguely astonished he has kept going this long – and asks readers if they’d like to tell him who is (still) reading.

Amazingly, it is exactly three years today since Dr Aust’s Spleen went live, and three years and a day since the first major post, titled

“Patrick Holfords friend and mentors – but who are they exactly?”

Now, one has to beware of writing “blog landmark” posts, as they obviously:

(i) do not carry information of any great import except to you, the blogger;  and therefore

(ii) almost inevitably make you seem a self-important arse.  (I’m a University lecturer. What did you expect?)

Given this, I have avoided posting any others of this type since the first anniversary celebration. The second anniversary came and went a year ago, as did the 100,000th page load some time over this Summer, and also the 111,000th and the 111,111th. As a middle-aged cricket fan I was almost moved to comment on one or both of those last two, but inertia (rather than modesty) got the better of me.

Anyway, in the three years of the blog’s life, posts have appeared sporadically, but a count of ninety-three averages to somewhere between two and three a month – which probably exceeds what I would have predicted I would manage over the long haul. (I notice it was thirty posts in the first year of operation, so the yearly posting frequency has not changed). This Summer, though, things have been very slow, for which apologies.

Thanks for Commenting. Really.

There have also been 1600-odd (printable) comments on the blog – especially pleasing since I enjoy comments threads much more than actual blogs. Similarly, I find that these days I like the discussions and “unconference” bits of conferences more than the actual set-piece speeches. So I guess I am by nature a conversationalist rather than an essayist. Though perhaps a “monologue-within-conversation-alist” is closer to the truth.

[Alternatively, it might be that my attention span and ability to focus are shot to hell from too many nightly hours of frantic clicking round De Interwebz, like that nice Dr Greenfield keeps warning about.]

Still on the conversation theme, I am one of those people (apparently rare in the blogosphere) who tend to actually read all the way down long comments threads, at least if the topic is something I’m interested in. Perhaps this explains why I don’t actually blog so much. Anyway, even taking the view that several hundred of those 1600+ comments on the blog will have been written by me (!), it is still gratifying to see how many people have come by to comment over the three years. Blogging is, to my way of thinking, in large part a cyberspace conversation initiated by the post itself; so without the comments the whole thing would lose much of its point. This is a live issue at the moment, as talk in the blogosphere is that commenting on blogs generally is down, with some people attributing this to the “conversations” moving over to Twitter. I reckon there is some truth to this, which makes me all the more delighted that threads here still have comments and discussion.

There has also, of course, been a ton of spam, which outnumbers real comments about ten to one. Though thankfully the filters catch most of it.

Now, inevitably with time one does tend to get a bit stale as a blogger – or other sort of writer. I even spotted Gimpy opining the other day over at his Posterous site that perhaps bloggers ought to be compulsorily shut down after a certain number of posts.

“Maybe a solution is to have some sort of Logan’s Run style time limit on bloggers. After 5 years or 500 posts bloggers should retire….or be retired?”

..though of course he was saying this as a solution to the perceived problem of bloggers becoming too popular. Which is unlikely to be a problem here.

One approach to combat the staleness is to try to change things a bit every now and again. So for instance, a few months past the first anniversary I tried a Diary page (modelled fairly consciously on David Colquhoun’s one) which I updated sporadically for a year before I ran out of steam around last Christmas.

Or one could try to alter the subject matter a bit. In the first anniversary post I wrote:

“When I started [blogging] I did think I would try and blend science explaining in with the snarking, but I have the feeling that over the last six months or so snarking has become rather dominant. I’m not sure why. Perhaps, because explaining science is my day job, it is less attractive as an off-duty blog-hobby.”

I think the preponderance of snark over science has probably been maintained through years two and three – though looking over the posts, the ones that have tended to be most read were often the ones with the most scientific explanation-type content. So perhaps more science exposition would be a possibility.

Let’s hear from you. De-lurk!

And that last sentence brings me back to commenters. And to readers.

I was at a conference a few weeks ago where there was an extended discussion of science and the internet, including blogging. The subject of what audience one was writing for got an airing. One very well known science blogger offered the opinion that one of the best things he had ever done was to have an annual “delurk”  or Open Thread – basically one where he asked his readers to tell him something about themselves, so that he could get an idea of who his audience were.

So – over to you. Who are you (no real names, of course, unless you want to leave them – I mean things like profession and level of science education, if any), and why do you read the blog? And are there any things you would like more of, or less of? More science? Or less? Less pseudoscience and alternative medicine? More academic life? Did you like the currently-in-abeyance Diary?

Anyway, while I am thinking about what I could do in the way of renewal, all comments (as ever) gratefully received. Especially if  you are a reader-but-not-commenter-til-now.