Solitude is cool, loneliness is not

You don’t know what you have until it’s gone. Then you miss it. But you can also learn something along the way.

This year is the first that I am living alone, in a tiny studio flat in London. I’m trying to decide whether I like it. On balance, I think not. Having my own space is fantastic – I value seclusion more than most – but only when the seclusion can be suspended on demand. If you’ve ever had to move alone to a new city, you will know that social interactions with people whom you’ve only recently met don’t work like this. I do appreciate the peace especially after a long day at uni, but those only come twice a week, now. As usual, I want to have my cake and eat it.

At home, growing up, I could wander around the house to see what my parents and brother were up to, and school provided at least a minimum of social interaction with non-family members. As an undergrad, I lived in college for two years and in student housing with friends for another. This really was the best of both worlds: my room was my own, but I could count on having friends around at meal times and we would schedule social study breaks. I never hung out with the people on my course, but housemates and university societies kept me more than socially active.

Now, I sometimes go a whole day without speaking to anyone face-to-face. Don’t feel too sorry for me – I’m in a fantastic relationship and my life is pretty great – I’m just pointing this out as an annoying realisation of the cost of privacy. Small spells of isolation are not the end of the world, but over time, they can be pretty draining. I have discovered, through experience, why Sims have a ‘social’ meter on their needs tab. (A feature that mystified me as a child – especially the way it would completely replenish by the magic of WooHoo.)

Sims needs

It’s actually rather profound stuff. We need other people. We’re just not built to be alone for too long. So, even if I have plenty of work that can be done from home, I try not to let a day go by when I don’t leave my flat at some point. When social interactions can’t be arranged, there are a few alternatives. Skype is God’s gift to millennials, but I find that I don’t make the time for it as often as I could. More often, it’s exercise that I turn to. A brisk run is like an orgasm for the endocrine system. Some days, brief conversations with strangers (say, in the supermarket) become valuable interactions! Try not to judge me, I promise this is not as sad as it sounds.

The truth is, I am often too busy to justify the vast investments of time required for short socials in London (this place is bloody huge), so I only set aside the hours when I think it will be worth it. I know, I’m the worst. My horribly calculating brain has begun to treat social time as a transaction, only to be carried out after careful cost-benefit analysis. I also confess that, at this point in my life, meeting new people is an effort, time spent getting to know acquaintances, an investment.

The problem is compounded by my fondness of solitude, or perhaps of the industriousness that comes of it. And I realise that I am starting to sound like a grinchy hermit who chooses to ignore social gatherings by convincing himself that there are important tasks to complete alone. But I’m not too antisocial when my coursework pressure ebbs, I promise! I like going out as much as the next person, but at times there just really isn’t much going on that I can go to. Anwyay, next year I’m aiming for housemates. I’m picky about sharing living space with others – but, as I said, it’s measured on balance, innit?

 

A taste of Spring

I moved to the UK more than three years ago now. This is my first in London, after my time at uni in the Northeast. One of the things that I still miss most from home is the amount of daylight we get throughout the year. It’s not so much the British rain, or the cold, that bother me, but the almost constant gloom of Winter. Weeks on end of grey cloud cover, each day punctuated by a half-sensed sunset early in the afternoon…

My dad has always said that he couldn’t imagine living somewhere without seasons. I share his sentiment. Any change of season is a welcome change, but I especially welcome Autumn and Spring. Perhaps it is because they come with the most visible changes, and the most longed-for reliefs. In Spain, the cranes will be flying home northward, and the swallows settling in under our eaves from their long journey. The toads will be screaming their orgies outside the house at night, and the almond trees will have bloomed.

In London, I sense little of this, but there are other changes to appreciate. Daffodils line the footpaths and bees are starting to buzz. The biggest change of all is in the people. With the balmy weather and pleasant evening light, Londoners take to the park, and the atmosphere is of quiet and contented celebration. This week, I joined them to enjoy this taste of Spring.

In defence of the middle ground

2016 has been a year of excesses. Maybe I’ve just spent more time on the Internet, but it seems to me that opinions, on just about everything, are extreme.

It is often said that we reinforce our opinions by seeking ideologically aligned friends, news sources and Internet feeds. But finding like-minded people is not that easy. Each person’s beliefs are varied, qualified and complicated in a strictly individual way. We can’t surround ourselves with others with whom we agree with on everything. It is easier to rally around the extreme opinions, which are often the most vocal.

I’ve started to see online attempts to escape the confirmation bubble by, say, following opposed activists on Twitter. I would commend this effort, but for the polarising way in which it usually plays out. We should expose ourselves to a variety of opinions to learn from their interface—instead we draw on dissimilar opinions that will legitimise our own.

The opposite, vocal and extreme position is a convenient target for our ridicule. We find it and parade it with donkey ears, drowning out the reasonable opposition which requires more effort to criticise. Worse still, we create extreme antagonism by exalting moderate dissent into caricatured straw men, which we can safely drag into the social space of our peers to destroy.

I’m not saying we should loose our passion, our conviction and our sense of righteousness. God knows we will certainly be needing those in 2017 and the years to come. I’m saying we should celebrate and encourage moderation: not moderation in the strength of our beliefs, but the right to hold moderate beliefs firmly.

Playing Chinese whispers with science headlines

A couple of months ago I started working as an intern with the communications team of Imperial College London. I write articles for the news site on research carried out by Imperial scientists. Naturally this involves simplifying technical detail for a lay audience. At Imperial I am surrounded by people who spend a great deal of time discussing science communication. We think long and hard about how best to make science accessible and entertaining without compromising accuracy. We also spend a fair bit of time worrying over what counts as ‘accurate’ and ranting about how most journalists don’t share science communicators’ qualms. Still, one wishfully thinks that their professional training and values must count for something. One is wrong. One was recently shocked by just how mercenary science journalism can be.

My first article covered experiments on the use of large structures, inspired by metamaterials, to protect buildings from earthquakes. Imperial is well-known for its metamaterial research because of Sir John Pendry, the father of ‘invisibility cloaks’. That term is not a media gimmick. Physicists themselves write of invisibility cloaks in their research papers, nodding to Harry Potter in an unprecedented display of PR savviness. Continue reading “Playing Chinese whispers with science headlines”

The Death of Science

Original Article for Palatinate – Durham’s Independent Student Newspaper

“Publish or perish” is a popular saying in the world of academia.

There is a reason why the phrase gets tossed around so cheerfully: like most clichés, it is descriptive and accurate. Before the success of modern academic research during the Second World War, scientists numbered a few hundred thousand. Today, to forge a career in science, academics must compete with several million fellow researchers.

Science is a trusted source of truth – it has earned that trust through self-policing. But with increasing graduates vying for limited scientific occupations, could research quality be giving way to quantity?

The deluge of studies submitted for publication means that leading journals must reject most manuscripts they receive. Editors are more likely to print striking findings on hot topics, which in turn tempts academics to exaggerate or cherry-pick results. Continue reading “The Death of Science”

Oh, Statistics… what have you done?

I just caught myself checking the distribution of scores and number of reviews given to a book in Goodreads to determine whether I could rely on the average rating as a useful indicator of central tendency.

A year ago I would have looked at the red stars and read the blurb.

University will be the end of me.