What is the gender and ethnic balance of the science stories I write?

Claire Murray challenged me by asking what I would do about gender bias in science

Claire Murray challenged me by asking what I would do about gender bias in science

In February 2020, Irish chemist Claire Murray provoked me. She spoke clearly and passionately at one of the last professional meetings I went to that was unaffected by lockdowns and social distancing. It launched a book called ‘Women in Their Element’, telling the often-overlooked stories of female scientists involved in filling in the periodic table of chemical elements. And it has changed how I work ever since.

In her talk Claire went beyond recapping her chapter, jointly written with Jess Wade, the pioneering activist on gender bias in science, on discoverers of the superheavy elements at the bottom of the periodic table. She also revealed the biases that have prevented women from being as successful in science as they should be. These include sexism, harassment, and stereotypes that women shouldn’t be scientists. Altogether this leads to a ‘leaky pipeline’, where fewer female scientists progress to more senior levels than male ones. Similar leaky pipeline issues also face Black, Asian and other ethnic minority scientists.

“We have allowed science to be the lone male white genius for too long,” Claire said. She ended by challenging us. “What can we do?” she asked. “How can we measure change? Who is responsible?” and finally, “What are you going to do?” When Claire signed my copy of the book, she repeated that provocation. “What are you going to do?”, she wrote. Read the rest of this entry »


New year, new ideas

Me, Andy Extance (centre front) and ECOE Operations and Maintenance Co-ordinator Margaret Pickering (left) with SOL Electrical Director Simon Lord (centre rear), who put up the panels, and Westbank’s Operations Manager Justin Milton. who represents the building, (right) celebrating installation of 46kW of solar panels at a safe social distance.
Me, Andy Extance (centre front), and ECOE Operations and Maintenance Co-ordinator Margaret Pickering (left) with SOL Electrical Director Simon Lord (centre rear), who put up the panels, and Westbank’s Operations Manager Justin Milton. who represents the building, (right) celebrating installation of 46kW of solar panels at a safe social distance.

Is anybody out there? If so, thanks for reading after such a long time without posts on this blog. Due to a combination of personal and professional reasons my focus had shifted elsewhere. In 2022, I plan to return to posting, in a slightly different form.

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Why we should be wary of ’12 years to climate breakdown’ rhetoric

safe_imageby Myles Allen, University of Oxford

I was invited to speak to a group of teenagers on climate strike in Oxford recently. Like many scientists, I support the strikes, but also find them disturbing. Which I’m sure is the idea.

Today’s teenagers are absolutely right to be up in arms about climate change, and right that they need powerful images to grab people’s attention. Yet some of the slogans being bandied around are genuinely frightening: a colleague recently told me of her 11-year-old coming home in tears after being told that, because of climate change, human civilisation might not survive for her to have children.

The problem is, as soon as scientists speak out against environmental slogans, our words are seized upon by a dwindling band of the usual suspects to dismiss the entire issue. So if I were addressing teenagers on strike, or young people involved in Extinction Rebellion and other groups, or indeed anyone who genuinely wants to understand what is going on, here’s what I’d say. Read the rest of this entry »

Can we fight climate change on our own?

Can we fight climate change on our own, or does society need to act in concert? Can we as individuals do anything meaningful? This from ClimateAdam is a really useful way to think about and discuss those questions.

Becoming more than an old gasbag: Climate chemistry on YouTube, cryogenic energy storage, and community renewable energy

All gas and bulls**t. That’s me – or so some of my critics think. And this time they’re right, although not in the way they think they are.

Over recent months I’ve been delighted to work with the enormously talented Adam Levy, better known as ClimateAdam, on a couple of videos. They deal with just why greenhouse gases trap energy in the atmosphere, a subject that has come up when I’m discussing climate with friends. It’s hard to understand how gases that are present in the atmosphere in such tiny amounts compared to oxygen and nitrogen can be so powerful. But it’s all to do with molecules absorbing light energy in a way that makes their atoms vibrate, which is also how substances get their colours.

I know this because it came up in my first year undergraduate chemistry course at the University of Southampton. My amazing lecturer, Martin Grossel, demonstrated the principles by standing on a stool with balloons in each hand, representing atoms. He then wiggled his arms to represent the vibrations in question. This is the kind of thing that just doesn’t come across in writing. So when I bumped into Adam at the Association of British Science Writers’ annual award ceremony last year, I suggested he put something like this into some of his videos. He then used the opportunity to apply for some science communication funding from the Royal Society of Chemistry. Having secured that cash, through the course of 2018 we’ve been working together on the script, and here are the final products:

These videos also show why carbon emissions are not the same as carbon dioxide emissions – the difference is two oxygen atoms – a common confusion that jangles my chemical sensibility. Apologies in advance if I ever annoyingly pull you up on this.

That’s the gas, but it’s definitely not the bulls**t. That comes in an article I recently had published on Physics World that talks about the exciting prospects for gases in energy storage. Cryogenically cooling and condensing gases – such as the air around us – when renewable energy is abundant is a potential means for storage. What’s more, you can use the cooling for refrigeration, and the liquid gases are portable.

But the bulls**t is what excites me the most. As our second video above shows, methane is a potent greenhouse gas and its emissions from farming – including from cows belching and pooing – are hard to reduce. So one of the companies I wrote about is looking to store the manure, collect the methane and cryogenically store it. Then,  farmers can burn it when energy is needed and feed electricity into the grid, displacing natural gas, for example. But like the other gases, the liquid methane is portable and could be used to run trucks that currently use diesel, and eliminate the horrible pollution that brings. Or it could be used to supply the many people in rural areas that – surprisingly to many urbanites – have no access to the gas grid.

It’s been months and months since I last posted here, but I hope that some of you have been following my climate writings elsewhere. I’ve used the time I used to put into blogging for lots of other things, including becoming a director of Exeter Community Energy this year, supporting renewable electricity generation and energy efficiency.

In case you hadn’t noticed, the climate issue is more pressing than ever. I’ve valued how Simple Climate enabled me to see how true that is. But having learned more about science writing, I appreciate that those reading this are mostly going to be those who likewise care about the climate. You guys know this stuff is important already – and so I’ve mainly decided it’s time to stop faffing around with blog posts and go do something practical. If you feel the same way, seeking out your local community renewable energy group is one excellent way to make a difference.

How does carbon dioxide cause global warming?

Some important basic science that explains how just a few hundred molecules of CO2 among every million molecules in the atmosphere can have a powerful warming effect.

A tang of science

Every sixth grader today knows that carbon dioxide causes global warming. Or at least every sixth grader outside the United States knows this. But why is carbon dioxide a green house gas? I tried to answer this question with the help of an infographic (see above).

From a chemical point of view, heat is motion of molecules and atoms. The more movement is happening on a molecular level, the more heat we feel on a human level (also called macroscopic level). Carbon dioxide is a molecule that is very good at this kind of movement, you could say it is a very athletic molecule. All molecules and atoms in any gas are able to move in all directions in space, but carbon dioxide can even carry out certain movements inside the molecule. These movements are called vibrations. Carbon dioxide can carry out three different vibrations, the symmetric stretch, the asymmetric…

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Australian rodent first mammalian victim of climate change

Good Night Earth


Tucked away on a small island off the coast of Queensland, Australia, the rat-like animal would have stared up at you with dark, beady eyes from the safety of some scattered shrubs.  No more than 15 centimeters long, the rodent would have been covered with light red fur, its tiny ears tucked tightly against its head, its pale underbelly barely visible.  You would have probably noticed the odd tail, as long as its body and lumpy with scales.

You may have seen this mosaic-tailed rat, melomys rubicola, had you traveled once upon a time to Bramble Cay, a small island built upon a the Great Barrier Reef.  But no longer.  After a fairly exhaustive search using traps, cameras, and searches on foot, Australian scientists have pronounced with confidence that the melomys is likely extinct [1].  The probable cause?  Evidence suggests dramatic weather conditions in the region combined with rising sea levels due to…

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Modern mussel shells much thinner than 50 years ago

The increasing vulnerabilities is another striking impact of our CO2 emissions. Anyone who likes moules frites would be well advised to push for action to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels to keep them on the menu.

A very beautiful and unusual animal in danger

The sad effects of our burning of fossil fuels are already hitting home

Good Night Earth


“We are tied to the ocean.  And when we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail or to watch – we are going back from whence we came.” — John F. Kennedy

Coral reefs across the world could vanish within this century.  This is a warning from scientists, not attention-seeking alarmists.  This is a warning from men and women who spend their lives diving along the 2300-km Great Barrier Reef, who know the reef-supported marine communities like beekeepers might know their hives.  In the words of Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, director of the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland, “this is not in the future, it’s happening right now.”

On a day when we celebrate Earth’s suppleness, its diversity, its numerous gifts wrapped in blue and green, as one of its stewards we must also face the threats to its stability that were created by us and can…

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Eyes on Environment: the many stories of climate change

An interesting close-up on some of the many threads of climate change impacts that weave together to make the case for action.

Good Night Earth

Over 40,000 delegates from 195 countries meet in Paris this week to legally commit to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prevent global temperature increases above 2 degrees Celsius. Although the prevention of 2 degree warming may not be possible, such emissions reduction agreements are a crucial step to stop global warming above 3-5 degrees that could lead to massive displacement of coastal populations, droughts, and severe natural disasters. In the words of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, this meeting is both a “test” and a “great opportunity” for all nations to work together towards a globally unifying goal.

In honor of these talks, I hope to emphasize a few stories about how climate change impacts lives around the world and how each of us can contribute to the cause of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. From global leaders to individual citizens of the world, we all play a role.


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