Have you wondered whether there is a Second Earth? Have you wondered whether diseases can be curedfixed for good? Do you know who Margaret Atwood is? And, have you heard of the Hainan Gibbon? I set out to find the answers to these mind-boggling questions at the New Scientist Conference this month.

 

I never truly liked science at school. I did not understand how to calculate physics equations and the thought of dissecting a frog made me churn. The Tory government have been trying to build quotas on the number of students choosing to pursue the sciences — with girls being the target. Girls still lag behind boys for a number of reasons, including: 1) they prefer humanities subjects because they are better at discussing their feelings and 2) they are too busy keeping up-to-date with Kim Kardashian’s contouring skills. So, it’s no wonder then that industry professionals, teachers and MPs are ranting and raving about the issue.

But, enough of the politics, let me tell you about what I learnt and enjoyed at the conference.

‘Speculative fiction’ vs. Sci-fi

Margaret Atwood is a Canadian-born author who has won countless awards such as the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the Booker Prize. She has won these awards because her writing is truly unique and answers some key questions about what it means to be a human and what it means to be an animal (many times these collide). When asked about her writing at the talk, she responded by stating how her approach to science is more centred on speculative fiction, contrary to many sci-fi books about green aliens. In her novel Oryx and Crake, she creates a dystopian scene whereby technology, animals and the dangerous mind of a human make the reader question their place in the world. The character Snowman finds himself in a very odd place as he thinks about his past as ‘Jimmy’. He watches the world around him crumble due to the crazy ideas of his friend Crake. One can question whether the events taking place in the book are actually possible, with scientists creating strange-looking animals that are human like.

Second Earth? Can aliens exist?

New Scientist Conference: To infinity and beyond!This talk was probably my favourite. Professor Darnell from the University of Westminster takes you onto a journey through space and teaches you the key concepts, such as the differences between organisms and the crazy discovery of the methane worm. It was so popular that I had to sit cross-legged on the floor near the stage! His research specialises in astrobiology and he has worked on a European machine called ‘ExoMars’ to explore whether we could one day live on Mars. The most amazing finding discussed however, was NASA’s discovery of a potential second earth named Kepler-452b. Unfortunately, it will take 1,400 light years for Earth to get there (enter disappointed face Emojj). After leaving the talk I now desperately, insatiably, want to find out whether there is a second earth!!!!!

Working 9 to 5?

We can’t research green aliens or write books if we don’t have a good working life though. This is why I attended the talk by BT Futurologist Nicola Millard on her discussion about the future of work. The fear of technological advancements has been a major concern over the years; you know, the usual statement that robots will take our jobs. Examples of apps helping workers to plan meetings and conference calls without even being in the room on a rainy Tuesday morning have become very useful, with many preferring this option. Millard looks at the differences between extroverts and introverts and how they work in an open place office. With many offices becoming open place, we should question whether this is actually good for the worker bee. Many professionals do say how things like the temperature in the room, someone asking a question or others being too loud, constantly distract them.

She groups her ideas as:

  • ‘Dolly’ — Or rather, the death of ‘Working 9-5’ like Dolly Parton in the film. Nowadays, many do not clock out at a fixed time due to emails and texts from their fellow workers and 5 am phone calls from China.
  • ‘Dilbert’ Technology has made things extremely easy for the introvert because they are able to take their laptop  everywhere without having to make physical contact with anyone.
  • ‘No’ Workers refuse to listen to their bosses about using certain things that can help them perform more efficiently, such as communicating through Facebook or other devices.
Cure for diseases?

But we can’t even focus at our desk if our health and wellbeing are at risk. I attended the talk by Dr Edd Wild from University College London who spoke about his findings to cure Huntington’s disease. There is a 50/50 per cent chance of your child possessing the gene that causes it if the adult posses it. George Huntington first discovered this genetic disease, stating:

‘As the disease progresses the mind becomes more or less impaired, in many accounting to insanity, while in others mind and body gradually fail until death relieves them of their suffering’.

However, research is slowly developing to improve the lives of those who sadly have this disease. Dr Wild and his team have been working to find a possible cure, already having found a blood test that can detect its occurrence. They studied 200 people who have the genes for the disease and even some with signs of it. They did a comparison of 100 people over the course of three years that had no potential risks. Individuals were monitored and measured with their blood samples scrutinised for a substance called neurofilament light chain, found in damaged brain cells. What they concluded was that this brain protein was high amongst people who have the disease and even higher amongst those who could have it later in life. But off course, more research is needed to find a cure.

New Scientist Conference: To infinity and beyond!No more Gibbons!

I had never even heard of the Hainan Gibbon monkey found in China before the talk about extinct species. The Hainan Gibbon is extremely rare now because people have been killing it for food and medicinal purposes. The issue surrounding evidence-based conservation is that these creatures are stuck in a very small space, making it harder to understand them when it comes to establishing historical background, restoring their mating process and providing more opportunities for intensive fieldwork. Funding research is key here, with professionals desperate to get the word out and raise interest with politicians across the globe.

Interviews

Glam Sci (organization that tries to get more girls into science)

‘I was told I was never clever enough to do anything due to my EDS syndrome. However, as I got older I realized my passion for science’.

When asked about political issues:

‘I feel that the government is not doing enough to fund organisations. STEM teachers are leaving because of pay, which is a cause for concern!’

Royal Society of Biology at Plymouth University

‘The discovery of new technology which I have been working on can bring about implications, such as terrorists using it to their advantage; which is why working with the government is crucial’.

Car Company

‘More women engineers are needed in the field and starting early in schools and colleges will help!’

 Attendee who works in software development

‘Science education is very important. Women don’t take it up because they feel like they can’t understand, but I was inspired in A Levels. When I studied my degree at Plymouth, my brother didn’t really know what my subject was all about’.

Attendee with kids

‘Good day out with the children so they can be inspired!’

 

I am thrilled that I got to attend this conference with a press pass kindly provided by Shout Out UK. And I have learnt a lot! The point I am trying to make here, is that young people need to feel more excited by science if they are ever going to study it. The government should stop focusing so much on quotas and concentrate more on getting teachers to inspire others.

 Now, who wants to plan a trip in advance to visit SECOND EARTH?