Poems, Articles and Provocations

Now and again I get the urge to write. No idea why the button gets pressed, but I do know that it never stays in the “on” position for long. The artist in me thinks it’s caused by excess gamma amino butyric acid in the amygdala, while the scientist suspects its caused by energy waves emitted by the elves that live in my trouser pockets. Whatever does it, here are some samples.


Beagle too

I was immediately moved by that picture of smoking dogs

Or is that dogs that smoke?

So I liked the idea of a Martian memorial

But I later discovered it was a boat reference, a voyage reference

And that it looked a lot like a dustbin lid

And had sponsored bouncers and a theme tune

So like the original Beagle [no not the dog]

Darwin insisted that the main sail read

The Royal Society does stuff

Or something along those lines

He awarded Mendelson the theme tune contract

Just ahead of Handel, who as well as being dead, had already done Water

No American rovers in sight

Not then

Hold on did you say Rovers!

They even stole the dog idea

Certainly did

Down Rover they commanded

And down it went

Rove Rover they signalled

And off it trundled

Not smoking probably made the difference

Bloody professionals

Didn’t offer to call for our dear little Beagle.

No point blaming NASA

The little darling had probably dodged behind a crater for a fag.

Why White?


As worn by the people who come to take you away

As worn by telly boffins as they sit in their lab

As worn by your dentist as he sniffs out decay

Why white?

Would a colour be too provocative?

Could you be taken away by people in red coats? Well possibly at Waterloo

Wouldn’t red make scientists even harder to televise?

Wouldn’t dentists be accused of trying to hide the blood?


So what about green?

It would add a much-needed organic feel to psychiatry

And make scientists blend reassuringly into the landscape

But might leave dentists looking rather moldy

Brown has been tried

It adds a technical feel that could look scary from the couch

Undermines the lone genius look for scientists

And who would trust a dentist who looked like a gardener


White suddenly seems attractive, after all

Its virginal. Its bridal.

It’s the colour of cover up

And curiously of noise

A scary colour for a shark

And the chosen colour for legislation.

It’s the colour of ambiguity, naivete and danger.

So white for science, absolutely right

[Both written to be performed at the Poetry Slam at the Cheltenham Science Festival in 2004. I came runner up to a bloke  called Rachel Pantechnicon which was a first]


The Wonders of Woolly Thinking

It’s rarely pointed out that, at least according to St Luke, sheep [and their shepherds], were chosen to be the recipients of the first must-have invitation, a manger side seat at the birth of Christ. It’s true that an ox and an ass also attended as observers, although probably only because the event involved their food bowl, and also that three seriously rich blokes turned up a little later, claiming to have followed a star but its been suggested they got their tickets from a tout.

The presence of sheep at one of the most significant moments in the bible story is testimony to our fixation on some of the first animals we domesticated.

They were ideal for our purposes being fast growing, wool bearing and inclined to form flocks. They even showed a willingness to accept humans as honorary sheep and appoint them their leader.

The Bible contains a total of 189 references to sheep, and the nativity story marks a transition from their old testament role as sacrificial animals, to their starring role in the new testament which is one extended sheep, flock and shepherd metaphor, something which I had no objection to until I discovered in my early teens that the geriatric old bigot who I was forced to listen to every Sunday had elected himself flock leader and had identified me and as having definite astray tendencies. Possibly because I could never keep a straight face at that point in the Messiah where the school choir loudly and repeatedly proclaimed “For we like sheep”, or indeed insisted on singing “Love ovine, all loves excelling”

But sheeps’ place in history is not just about making sly digs at the Welsh.

Consider for a moment the nursery rhyme Baa Baa Black Sheep, widely believed to have been penned as a protest against the levying of a Wool Tax by Edward the First. He needed the money to fund his crusades and wool was one of the high value commodities of his time. The original lyrics refer to the fact that two thirds of the price of wool went to the king (the master), one third to the monasteries (the dame), with nothing being left for the shepherds (the little boys)

But it is one thing for sheep to fund wars and quite another to go war on their behalf, as happened in 1982 when the Falklands, islands with a sheep to human ratio of about 240 to 1, the highest on the planet, suddenly became the cause of a short but no less bloody war between Mrs Thatcher and Argentina. Much was made of the marshal way in which Mrs T conducted herself but, possibly understandably, her speech writers steered clear of suggesting that the heroic efforts of her Majesty’s forces had been to create a world safe for sheep to live in.

If the Falklands war could be seen as rather low key from the ovine point of view; recent years have been a PR triumph, first there was Dolly. Would it have been such a sensational story if it had been a cloned rat that had been similarly thrust into the limelight? I suspect not, it would have lacked the opportunities for anthropomorphism offered by the outcome of the experiment being an animal for which humans had had a best friend relationship for millennia.

The early death of Dolly could have herded sheep out of the limelight but, as if fore-planned, a Cambridge team of sheepologists was waiting in the wings to report that, far from being woolly dullards we had all assumed, sheep had a rich repertoire of personal skills. They could, for example, recognize the faces of up to 50 sheep and retain the information for at least two years, a test that I for one would never pass with sheep and might not pass with humans. But it didn’t end there, it was also reported they could read emotion on each others’ faces, recognise individual humans and self-medicate using the kinds of natural remedies recommended to us by authorities like Richard and Judy.

What next one wonders? How soon will it be before we discover that sheep make ideal chat show hosts or have views about whether the role of ruminants in warming the planet has been overstated?

Have sheep being deceiving us? Exploiting our vanity and concealing their intelligence, so that we do all the drudgery, while they get to wander the hillsides discussing the contribution of Kierkegaard to theories of divinity whilst stoned out of their minds on recreational herbal remedies.

We have no way of knowing,

[Published in the Times Higher in December 2008, on a page facing a fabulously poe-faced piece by the Chief Exec of the Higher Education Funding Council, it was the issue in which his dreaded RAE results were published just in time for Xmas]


Is the still small voice of Engagement being drowned out by the recruitment officers’ megaphones?

I would suggest that by far the greatest funders of interactions between scientists and the public are Universities battling to recruit students. Their aim is to project a positive view of what they offer and convince would be students that studying their subject will lead to gainful employment. My guess is that the resources expended by the UK Universities on this particular form of one way communication dwarves all the funding made available for public engagement.

Consequently large numbers, perhaps a majority, of University based scientists have significant experience of promoting their subject and being persuasive about the value of their research. They are often supported in doing this public relations work by their professional bodies who run events like career fairs.

So, if it is all to be about listening rather than telling is it really retraining rather than training that is required? Or does this all fit neatly along the engagement continuum conjured up by some previous contributors?

[sent to psci-com during one of those tedious but popular bouts of  acronym angst. Should it be PUS or PAWS orPEST or PIST [ho-ho] or PAST? No-one proposed POST, Public Outrage with Science and Technology. I wonder why?]


2 Responses to “Poems, Articles and Provocations”

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