Archive for the 'Synaptic Misfires' category

Don't tell me how to be inspired

Mar 12 2014 Published by under Academia, Activism, Synaptic Misfires

This is a rant. It's a rant because, sometimes, you've heard something just one too many times. And sometimes, things link together in my head.

I had a conversation with a friend the other day. He was shaking his head over a girl he was seeing. She called herself a fantasy fan...but she had never read Joseph Campbell! HOW?!

I am a huge fantasy fan. I've never read Joseph Campell. And I lost my temper.

Because I have been told, over and over again, that my education is incomplete unless I've read X. I'm not a TRUE fan of a genre unless I've read Y, and I'm just not a nerd at all unless I've been blown away by Z.

My friend stated that Joseph Campbell is important because he felt that for any aspiring fan or writer, "A Hero's Journey" would be required reading. The "methods section" of the fantasy genre, like how you have introduction to certain texts as a history major which introduce you to all the main concepts.

I disagree. Last I heard Joseph Campbell was an author (Edited to add: he was also an academic and mythologian who introduced really important concepts and tropes, like the hero's journey, which are used to this day). He did a lot of really interesting work, but he is not a required gestalt for the enjoyment of fantasy. And I think it's very possible to be an expert in something without having read the "must read" list of things that mostly old white guys have developed for us to be educated by. Does a person with a PhD and many publications in ancient Chinese history really need to read the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to be considered an educated individual? If you answer that with a "yes," I'd really love to know your reasoning.

He may think that if you haven't read Joseph Campbell you are an ill-educated fantasy reader. I might think that if you haven't read Mary Stewart and Marion Zimmer Bradley you are just as ill-educated.

Who is right? NEITHER OF US.

You don't get to determine what inspires someone else or even what someone else considers good literature.
The "classics" do not define education in most subjects. I understood the concept of evolution long before I read Darwin, because I had read other books on the subject. After I read Darwin, I cannot say that I understood it any better. Darwin had the original concept, yes. He was really thorough about it, yes. But it is very possible to understand evolution without ever having read Darwin. It is possible to LOVE fantasy without ever having read the Silmarillion (heck, I have read it and I think it lessened my love of the genre slightly. Sorry, Tolkien).

Read what you like. Be inspired by what inspires you. Do not feel pressure to be inspired on someone else's terms.

I was reminded of this argument again yesterday as I tweeted that I had watched the first episode of Neil DeGrasse Tyson's Cosmos. It was ok.

It was my first exposure to Cosmos. I have never seen the Carl Sagan version. I was too young for it, and was raised primarily on Bill Nye, Ranger Rick and the Magic School Bus (the "inside the body" book and episode sticks in my head today. INSPIRING AS ANYTHING). My parents are not scientists, and I'm not sure they've ever seen Cosmos either. I never even HEARD of it until, like Ed, I heard about it on twitter a few years ago, looked it up, and saw what it was.

But of course, on twitter, every time I reveal I haven't seen the original Cosmos, I get a lot of "WHUT?!" "NO!" "HOW?!" I have even been told at times that I'm not a true science communicator because I haven't seen it and been inspired by it.


And I lost my temper again. At a poor tweep who didn't know what they stepped in. Sorry @KeesEngels. It's not you! It's my past history of not having read Joseph Campbell!

It is completely possible to be inspired in science without having seen Carl Sagan. Heck, it is completely possible to have seen Carl Sagan, go "meh," and be inspired by something else! Carl Sagan is probably (to this date, still haven't seen it) great TV. Probably very inspirational to lots of people. I by no means want to knock good Sci Comm. But it won't be inspirational to everyone. And that's ok! Matthew Francis put it best.



People who require you to read or watch or be inspired by certain things are people who want to believe there is one TRUE path to science, fantasy, etc. The path they took, the true one, the best one.

Those people need to get over themselves.

Do not expect or require everyone to be inspired by the same things you are inspired by. Accept that what inspired you may NOT inspire someone else. Let's all be inspired in our own way. After all, the point is the inspiration, not where it comes from.



*Footnote: My friend who was talking about Joseph Campbell recanted in the face of my arguments. Because he's a cool guy. Also, I throw elbows when I argue.

43 responses so far

#scio14 Wrapup: Read the Comments!

Mar 09 2014 Published by under Academia, Activism, Synaptic Misfires, Uncategorized

It's now been a week since ScienceOnline Together 2014 (and I don't know about you guys, but I'm still down with the hideous #scioplague. I'm really ready to be done with feeling like I am swallowing a sword all the time). It was, despite some difficulties that I hope we all move forward together to solve, a fantastic opportunity to meet new people, chat with old friends, and engage in some really interesting and important discussions on how to communicate science in an online world. This year there was a little more focus on visual forms of communication, ways to get science out there that don't always involve writing lengthy explainers. While I'm a lover of a well written explainer, I am very, very glad that these different methods, using infographics, video, virtual games and other methods are getting some play. There is far more than one way to communicate science, and I want to see them all done well.

This  year I was very pleased to lead a session, proposed by the brilliant and notorious Ivan Oransky, on commenting. The following writeup is based on the GREAT notes by Kristin Harper, who was nice enough to be the note taker. It is sometimes out of order and highly biased. If you were at the session, please do write up your own summary and help me out! Or, even....put your opinions in the comments. 🙂

Everyone knows you shouldn't read the comments. Comments with a nasty tone can bring your article down. Comments are full of trolls who tell you about your comma problems and call you an "unbridled" man-hater. The idea that you shouldn't read the comments is so pervasive that there's a twitter feed for it. Due to research showing that negative comments bring down the opinion of a piece, PopSci banned comments altogether.

Why do we want comments at all? I personally like comments because often...they tell me I am wrong. I'd rather be told I am wrong, get the science right, and improve my understanding and the understanding of my readers, than let incorrect statements persist. In addition, I find my commenters are often funny, smart, and can add a lot to knowledge of a topic. Other session members said that comments added multiple answers to a single question, giving different perspectives.

But as our discussion at #scio14 showed, not all comments are bad. David Shiffman of Southern Fried Science noted that because his group blog is very focused on marine science, the commenters tend to me more knowledgeable than they might be on sites that are more general. On the other hand, Ivan Oransky pointed out that on Retraction Watch, some comments might be knowledgeable, but they can also skirt very close to being libelous, and Victoria from PLoS blogs agreed that accusations of fraud and libel cannot be left in the comments section. Tara Haelle noted that when she writes about vaccines, for example, she welcomes discussion, but doesn't want links to harmful sites to slip past, and that it is sometimes very difficult to tell the difference between a concerned parent and a troll who is "just asking a question." We discussed how some bloggers prefer pre-moderations (all comments are held for approval), or post-moderation (if something harmful appears it can be taken down). Comment moderators noted that, on high traffic sites, sorting through the comments about three times a day could do the trick to separate the wheat from the chaff.

When it comes to comment moderation, there were several different options. Bug Girl said that she uses a yellow card/red card system. My own comment policy asks people to avoid ad hominem attacks and other logical fallacies. I employ a three strike method, and should you attempt to be a jerk, I'll tell you how you are violating the comment policy, and give you a chance to re write your comment. In most of the situations, I have found volunteers gladly rewrite their comments. They'd rather make the point than insult. Others at the session recommended systems that allow you to downvote comments that are bad (enough downvotes will hide the comment altogether), and those which allow a flagged reporting system that sends an email to the administrator. Still others recommended disemvoweling a terrible comment (just taking out all the vowels) or rewriting it in haiku form. Moderation AND a form of therapy. Others, like Ivan, note that he will edit comments that are libelous or severely problematic, and often includes a note saying how he edited the comment.

I myself prefer not to edit comments. I don't want to silence voices of dissent, or those who might be unable to speak up in any other forum. Ad hominem attacks, however, cross the line.

But of course, before you can have negative comments or positive comments or even off topic comments, you have to get comments at all. We noted that a lot of comments have moved, and conversations often take place on Facebook or Twitter rather than in the comments of posts. Likes and RTs are the "nice post!" of 2014. To gather these comments into one place, Victoria Costello of PLoS Blogs recommended storify, and noted that PLoS has developed a media curation tool for its site. There are also widgets that connect Facebook comments to article comments.

But it also helps if you don't require a potential commenter to create an account, or use an interface like Discus, where one account makes it easy to log in on many platforms. Several people in the session said that for those truly desperate for comments, ask a question, even give away items for the best answer.

What came out of all of this? Ivan (who proposed the session in the first place and who I consulted for advice) both agreed that we wanted the session to be productive, to come out with something useful. We decided to crowdsource ideas for best practices in commenting. Not everyone chooses to have comments, and that's ok! But I say that comments are like sex. Not everyone will choose to have it, people may choose to have it in different ways and with different people, but if you want to have comments, it's generally a good idea to use a condom. Have a set of best practices and a comment moderation policy that you can refer to.

Below are the best practices that we came up with over an hour of discussion. These are obviously not comprehensive, and we'd love to get more feedback and ideas!

  1. Have a clear written comment policy. (But expect that people probably won't read it and you'll need to remind them.)
  2. Provide positive feedback for good comments wherever possible. For example, you can link to a comment in a follow up story, make something a featured comment, or reply to a comment with a note about how great it is.
  3. Reserve the right to edit comments or delete comments. Don't be afraid to enforce your policy.
  4. Define name calling. "This person is a fraud" is just as much name calling as "This person is a stinky carnivorous hippo."
  5. Limit the number of links. WordPress often defaults to sending comments to moderation if there are two links in them or more. This helps keep spam down. Let people know that when they complain to you about their well researched comment with many links. Keep an eye out for those comments. They aren't all spam!
  6. Most importantly: Join the conversation! A good commentariat is the result of good interaction between the bloggers and their commenters.

So, how did we do? What do you think of our best practices? Let us the comments.

2 responses so far

A more personal take

Dec 28 2013 Published by under Synaptic Misfires

In case you all missed it, for the past three months now, I have been a full time writer and blogger at Science News, where I run the science education blog Eureka! Lab, and of course, Scicurious. It is, without a doubt, a fantastic life. I'm learning so much as a writer, and I hope that I'm making a difference as I go!

But of course, things happen in the meantime. Personal things. And so my editors have said I can continue here, dropping personal posts from time to time, to talk particularly about my transition away from academia and to life as a science writer. I'm very pleased to be able to do that. It is a difficult transition to make, and I want others out there making it to are not alone in leaving academia. And you are not a failure.

And of course there are other things as well. I have a harebrained new project! For those of you who are interested, see my next post. For those who aren't, well I completely understand. 🙂

One response so far

Happy Science Trails!

Oct 23 2013 Published by under Synaptic Misfires

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I am excited to say that I have started a new, FULL TIME job as the Science Education Writer at Science News for Students! You can check out all my science education stuff over at Eureka!Lab! And don't worry, Scicurious will continue! I've got my new digs up and running over at Science News, and the science...and the WEIRD SCIENCE, will continue on!!!

I have been, and always will be, a proud Scientopian. And you might see a personal post or two here from me from time to time. 🙂 And of course I'll be here, reading and commenting  at some of my fav places.

So readers and fellow bloggers, please update your bookmarks, and make sure not to miss any Scicurious! The blog continues on!

5 responses so far

To everything there is a season.

Oct 04 2013 Published by under Synaptic Misfires

Over the past few weeks, some very new and exciting developments have happened here in Sci-land! I'm very happy to say that I'll soon (in about two weeks) be taking up residence as a full time blogger at Student Science, a part of Science News! I'll be blogging about the latest and greatest things in the world of student science: how students can get involved in research, how teachers can make science everyone's favorite subject, and how parents can help their little scientists find their wings. Not to fear, Scicurious blogging will continue, and it will also be moving over to Science News.

I'm determined to enjoy my last few weeks here at Scientopia. It's a wonderful group of passionate individuals. I love each individual voice and they are often my favorite things to read. I hate to leave, but I'm very excited about my chance to help even more people love science! I hope you all will keep tabs on me as I take Scicurious, and now, Eureka!Lab, on to new horizons!

2 responses so far

Treading water

Aug 21 2013 Published by under Synaptic Misfires

Hi guys, Sci here. I'm afraid that things are more stressed than usual at around these parts. In fact, I may really, finally, have bitten off more than I can chew. So, things are going to be slow around here for a while. I'll have posts up on Mondays at SciAm as usual. Fridays will be reposts because you, and I, cannot live without our weird science. I might be able to resurface in three weeks or so. Thanks.

6 responses so far

Hadrian's Wall Hike Part the Last

Aug 13 2013 Published by under Synaptic Misfires

I figure it's about time I finished up the tale of Mr. S and I heading to the "wilds" of the United Kingdom to hike Hadrian's Wall.

It's funny the relationships you strike up on the wall. A bunch of us, couples, groups of friends, families, are all hiking the same distance per day, often at the same pace. And because there's very little out there on parts of the wall, it means we often stayed in the same places and ate at the same places. We got to know each other. Throughout each day, you'll leapfrog each other, as you stop for photos or a rest, or they do. Apparently we were the "fast" Americans, who hiked a bit faster than some of the other groups, and who didn't give up after the first day like some other Americans on the hike.

This night we ended up at the Samson Inn in Gisland, an adorable little pub that had some really tasty food (and it wasn't all pub food! There was risotto and lasagna!!), chatting with the other hikers about what we'd seen that day, It's a nice sense of camaraderie.

The hotel, Bush Nook, was incredibly charming, even though it was a LONG slog up the hill from the trail.

The next day we headed out for another "short" day (8 miles). It was short, but it was full of things to see. We started out seeing Birdoswald Fort, which has more than just Roman history (this becomes a good thing after a while, because while Roman history is great...all the forts and milecastles and turrets look the same. That's actually on purpose. But still). After the Romans left, other people (possibly locally recruited soldiers who were formerly part of the Roman army) remains and settled the fort area. New buildings were built on the old ones, all the way up to a Bastle in the 15th century (a fortified farmhouse, meant to discourage Border Reivers, or raiders. Not the Firefly kind. The Scottish kind. The farmhouse had windows only on the upper floors. The lower floor housed livestock and had only one, very strong, door. The people lived above, and the ladder connecting the upstairs and downstairs could be raised if the Reivers came in to steal your cattle). Now, the site is a beautiful 18th century farmhouse, surrounded by Roman walls.


Later in the day we came to Lanercost Priory, a lovely romantic ruin that used to house Priests, which also suffered a lot from Reivers until the dissolution of the monasteries during the reign of Henry VIII.


(But first, very hairy cow. Very cute. Very hairy)


(The old entrance to Lanercost Priory)



(Romantic ruins are romantic)


(Sneaky PB and J)

Side Note: Apparently PB & J is not the hiking staple is the UK that it is in the US. I never ONCE saw peanut butter anywhere at breakfast or anything. We always got ham sandwiches or turkey with some kind of jelly in it. Maybe because of allergies? But it's SUCH a great fuel. The ham was fine, but after a while, I really began to crave some peanut butter. Luckily, we brought our own hiking fuel, which included things like trail mix, energy bars, and little single packets of peanut butter! I jury-rigged myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich as seen above, on a scone. It was DELICIOUS. I have no shame.

In the afternoon we reached Walton, where one of the couples we were friends with (from Holland) was trying to get a cab. Apparently dialing a country code on a cell phone is a headache. But they made a local friend and soon all was well! We ended up in one of the lamer hotels that night, but no spiders.

PS: I am officially sick of The English Breakfast. I want porridge. How do you make that stuff? It's GREAT.

Hadrian's Wall: Day the Last

Well, not REALLY the last day. You can hike the trail all the way from Newcastle to Bowness-on-Solway. We were stopping at Carlisle, because we didn't really have any more time, and because all the best bits of wall are between Heddon on the Wall and Carlisle.

Our final day was 12 miles, which goes VERY quickly when it's all flat. We raced along and were done for the day in 5 hours (except for the 1.5 hours we stopped at a pub along the way. What?). Hadrian's wall walk complete!


(And the walk was lined in ADORABLE houses)


(Houses with feline guardians)


(The Stag Inn, where we got lunch and pints. I love that all the pubs look like this. Our sports bars have no personality)


(The bridge to Carlisle! Mission complete)

Yeah, it was only 12 miles of nice flat ground, but it should say something that we got to the final hotel (very nice), and...fell asleep.

But JOY! JOY! We were in Carlisle! It's a small town has more than one place to eat. And more than one KIND of food! You have to understand that we'd been living on English Breakfasts and Pub Food for days. We got Italian. It was GREAT.

We said a sad goodbye to our hiking companions (so nice! I wish I'd thought to get email addresses or something), and headed to see Carlisle castle. Like everything here, they have exhibit on Mary Queen of Scots (who apparently stayed in the Castle).


(The castle)

There is an old wine cellar in the bottom that was used during the Parliamentariat as a dungeon, and contained slick spots on the wall. "Licking stones", where the moisture used to run down and which is prisoners licked smooth as they tried to get at the water.


(The shiny bit in the middle)

Side Note: Dear English Heritage, Your tours are lame. You have to pay and then you have to pay MORE for a book, and if you don't, there's no signage or anything really interesting to tell you anything about the site! This plagued us throughout our travels. You need an audiotour, guys. The ones at Holyrood House and the Edinburgh Castle were brilliant. Invest in those. We'd pay for them. Love, Me.

The Carlisle Cathedral was also very lovely.


The ceiling inside is particularly stunning.



(Neat floor tiles)

We grabbed some Indian food for dinner, and the next day, it was on the train to London, and then, home (though it should be noted we got stuck in the Tube for about 40 minutes when there was something stopping the central line).

There's not question it was a trip for the ages! So much fun, and so many lovely things to see. Like this:


(Like this. My favorite sign)

Things I miss already:

1. SCONES. Scones and cream teas. My scones never taste like that. I wonder what I'm doing wrong.

2. The atmosphere of the pubs around there. The fake ones in the US try for it, but never succeed. It's so nice to be able to sit there, with comfortable seats and nice beer in a quiet, snug place.

3. English bacon. So nice. So ham like.

4. It was so nice and cool!!! Everyone there complained of a heat wave, but no. You have NO IDEA.

Things I don't miss:

1. Pub food. Sorry. Sausages and potatoes and all are fine, but...

2. Sheep poop.

3. Cow pats.

4. High prices. The people running stuff along the wall KNOW they are the only pub for miles and we're on foot. And they price to take advantage. That said, it's not that terrible.

Anyway, thanks for coming along as we re-write our journey!! Who knows where the next world stop will be? 🙂

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Sci Walks Hadrian's Wall, Part Three

Aug 08 2013 Published by under Synaptic Misfires, Uncategorized

Day 6: The WALL!


(Yes. I am standing on a 2000 year old UNESCO World Heritage Site. What did YOU do today?)

After a fortifying breakfast (it was make your own, which I really liked, and I have MASTERED the full English breakfast! With beans! Good for hiking fuel, beans) we set off. 15 miles for our first day, and by the end, yeah, my feet were really tired. But so far, it's definitely worth it (though poor Mr got a blister).

Side Note: One of the things I really liked about the UK: Half pints! It's a great system. Costs less. You drink less. It's good especially for when there are like three things on tap you want to try and you don't want to commit to a full pint. Can the US get these? Please??

The first leg of Hadrian's Wall actually had...very little WALL. The one you see above is a good sized chunk of "broad" wall in Heddon-on-the-Wall, and the last bit of wall we saw...all day ("Broad" wall is wall built to three meters wide, on the original plan. After they got a few miles in the the Romans realized it would be too much of a pain, and the rest of the wall was 2 meters wide "narrow" wall on 3 meter foundations). What we mostly saw was the Vallum, a very wide ditch on the south side of the wall, which is still there in a lot of places, and the deep, steep ditch on the north side of the wall (originally there would have been sharpened stakes in there, something you couldn't ride a horse through), which we ended up walking along for a good portion of the day. the ditches on both sides of the wall enabled the Romans to have good defense on both sides, and also to restrict traffic to a few access points for easy customs and taxes (priorities!).

The hills and woods were a brilliant green, the weather was perfect (ok, the locals were all complaining about how it was SO HOT. It was about 80 degrees F at the hottest. We thought it was lovely), and there were lots and lots of sheep. And cows. And horses.


(Bucolic is the word I'm going for here)


(Hadrian's barn packed us a lunch with appropriately themed chips)


(Our constant, skittish companions)


(The path itself)

Every once in a while we'd run into a convenience pub and stop for a beer. Hadrian's Wall Path, the longest pub crawl in the world.

It should also be noted that the trail ran mostly through fields, though a little bit through towns. The result of this is that you're hiking with cows and sheep and stuff. This also means they own the fields, and the fields can become...well we started calling them "mines". Poop mines. At some point, you WILL get mined. If you can choose, choose a sheep mine over a cow mine. Trust me on that.

At the very end, we hit the Roman fort and bridge remains at Chesters. The remains are really striking, gates, barracks, and a full bathhouse down by the river (Romans took bathing VERY seriously). There were also a bunch of people there who were Roman reenactors. We chatted with one guy for a while (an Irish Roman reenactor, who flew over with all his armor to feed his reenactment habit) about reenactment culture and what they do.

The Museum at Chesters had a bunch of artifacts and stones. The majority of these are small alters or stones stating that "so and so fulfilled his vow to Mars/Venus/Jupiter", which were made as offerings to a temple when someone...fulfilled their vow. Whatever that happened to be (it could be a dove sacrifice or something a lot more difficult). There were also various symbols of things like good fortune:


(A Roman sign of prosperity and good fortune. Not kidding. Yes, that is exactly what you think it is)


(The ruins at Chesters)


(I am sitting in the bath house at Chesters. The niches were probably for statuary, but that whole row of niches has survived over 2000 years)

Then we headed to the George Hotel for some good beers, a friendly bartender, and pretty views after a long hike. The bartender was nice enough to say that we looked in way better shape than most of the people who come limping in after the 15 mile leg.


(Intrepid Neuron contemplates paradise)

We then hiked another mile or so to our stop for a day, a rooming house that will remain nameless, as it loses strongly for the GIGANTIC spider in the bathtub at 2am.

Day 7: The Wall Continues

We had gotten lucky. The beautiful sunny mild weather. The warmth. Light breezes. And then. Then there was day 2 on the wall, when Northumbria reminds you what she is made of. It rained. Hard. Sideways. For the first 8 of our 12 miles. 8 miles of driving wind and rain and COLD. The invention of thermal underlayers and waterproof jackets was the most amazing thing in history. Makes you really pity the poor Romans, all in their wool tunics, shivering as they stared north searching for the Scots.


(Hadrian's Wall in the rain)

During today's sodden hike, we saw the very well preserved remains of the Mithraeum, a temple to Mithras, a Persian god adopted by many Roman soliders, involving dark, light, and the sacrifice of a bull.


(Remains of the temple)

Today was the windiest, and also the HIGHEST point of Hadrian's Wall, and today we finally saw a LOT of wall. A lot of it is "narrow" wall, only 2 meters across. But it's well preserved, and there's a good reason why. The wall in this area runs on the top of steep cliffs called the "Whin Sill". It's testament to sheer Roman bloody mindedness. It's on the top of a hundred foot cliff. There is NO WAY that invaders are getting at it. You don't NEED a wall there! But there it stands. Because they were going to build a wall across the whole country, and so help them, they built it.

After a lot of hiking in rain, wind, mud, and misery, we arrived at the Roman Fort at Housesteads, which happily had a nice hot drinks machine and nice museum curators, who let us sit inside while we dried out and warmed up. Housesteads has been beautifully preserved and is well worth a visit. We also saw a bunch of turrets every quarter mile or so (which would have a fire in the bottom and a ladder to the top of the wall), and a bunch of milecastles (built, obviously, every mile), which housed a detachment of about 30 men.


(A milecastle with a very well preserved arch.

We also went through the Sycamore gap.


(It is apparently most famous for it's role in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves)

The Sycamore Gap is another testament to Roman bloodymindedness. Those hills are NUTS. Cavalry would break a leg. You'd think you could build the wall as a terrace set, or maybe curve it a little and build somewhere flatter. But no. The wall will go in a straight line because the Romans SAY SO. Even if that means building up a nearly 90 degree angle.

Our feet are tired, but we haven't given in! On the A6318, the highway that runs the entire length of Hadrian's Wall (based on a military road from the 1700s),  you can see the Hadrian's Wall bus go by (the AD122, named that because Hadrian's Wall was built in AD...122. Yes. They really named the buss that). We have dubbed it the "fail bus", and are determined only to get on it if we fail to hike the distance (a name, by the way, which we quickly spread to our fellow hikers on the trail). But not to day, failbus, not today.

After Housesteads the rain let up, and we ended up comfortably ensconced in the town of Once Brewed, at the Twice Brewed Inn (yes, this exists).


(Told you it exists)

We lingered over tasty beers and tasty sausage, letting our feet dry (sort of, we were wearing wet boots for the next TWO DAYS), before we headed to our accomodation that night, Hunter Crook Lodge, a lovely renovated barn. It was really classy, and best of all, they had baby lambs we got to play with!


(Your heart just melted a little, didn't it)

They even have a hot tub! After the rather lame place last night with a huge spider, it was a lovely improvement.

Day 8: More Wall

This day was "only" 8 miles, but it was a pretty up and down 8 miles with lots of hills. We also saw our first injury, as we witnessed someone's ankle break on the trail. Yeah. I hope he's ok, poor kid. Thankfully they had phones and could call for assistance, but I can only imagine how they got him out of there, it was the middle of nowhere Northumbria. The wall is not easy on the unwary.

We also passed another instance of Roman insanity. This milecastle:


It's a little hard to see from the photo, but the milecastle is build on a horrid angle, constantly sloping. Terrible to walk on and probably worse to build on. Just behind it, there is a small valley. 50 feet to the left, with places for travelers to go through and nice flat ground. But see, this is a milecastle, and it WILL be built every MILE, not every mile and 50 feet to the left, no matter how convenient it might be. Romans.

But it's got lovely scenery


Just off the wall path, we stopped at the lovely and romantically ruined Thirwell Castle (also of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves fame)


And we backtracked a little to get to the Roman Army Museum, which has some really nice exhibits and videos. And helmets.


(Intrepid Neuron goes Roman)

We headed on to our next stop, Gisland, where we stayed at another incredibly charming place, Bush Nook, and had a super tasty dinner at the Samson Inn (seriously, the chicken is GREAT there. I wanted to try a fish pie, but another hiker took the last one! I still blame him for my never having had one). After seeing a kid break bones on the trail, you need a pint.




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Sci Walks Hadrian's Wall, Part Two

Aug 07 2013 Published by under Synaptic Misfires, Uncategorized

Ok, we're not to Hadrian's Wall yet. Patience. Patience.

Day 3: Edinburgh, part the third.

Did you know that bagpipe renditions of Coldplay exist? I could have gone my entire life without knowing that. Sadly, it was blasting from a souvenir shop. Which means, of course...I had to find it and share it with you.

You adore me, don't you.

Anyway, we had a lot to fit in this morning! Started out at the High Kirk of St. Giles, the main cathedral below the castle on the Royal Mile.


You can't take any photos inside (unless you pay), but it's really gorgeous, with a full set at the back of stained glass depicting the life of Jesus, and a small chapel for the Order of the Thistle, which has lovely warm wood paneling. There are also monuments to various things, including one which I enjoyed, a monument blessing the invention of chloroform for anesthesia.

From there we headed to the Royal Museum/Museum of Scotland, two museums merged into one. One half tells the history of Scotland, while the other has...everything else. It's rather confusingly organized. One minute you're looking at taxidermied narwhals, and the next...mummies! We had trouble finding a coherent narrative in the Scottish history section, either, though I see what they were trying to do with it. We did see "the maiden", the famous guillotine that ended up executing the guy who designed it.


The main hall of the museum was great.


But amidst all the other stuff they had...Dolly!

(Sci meets Dolly).

Dolly was the first mammal cloned from an adult cell. As a sciencey person, I have to say that seeing her was...honestly pretty emotional for me. She's an embodiment of some of the wonders of science. And she's looking very good for her age...nice taxidermy work. I was also very impressed at the exhibit surrounding her, which had a whole educational thing where you could elect to learn more about cloning, and then it asked your opinion as to what you thought about it, whether cloning should be used for medicine, for example, and then showed your response and how it compared with others. I thought it was very effective.

There was also a special exhibit on Mary, Queen of Scots, which was very cohesive and extremely interesting. In every country there are a few historical people who really stand out, for one reason or another. England has Elizabeth I, Henry VII, Cromwell, Richard III. The US has Washington, Franklin, Custer. And Scotland has Mary, Queen of Scots, Robert the Bruce, William Wallace, Bonnie Prince Charlie, and James the VI and I (the last is the son of Mary, and united Scotland and England under a single monarchy after the death of Elizabeth I).

Mary, Queen of Scots had a...well a rough life. Not all her fault. But some of it probably was. She became queen at 6 DAYS old (her father having died, possibly of a fever, after a massive defeat from the English at the Battle of Solway Moss in 1542), and immediately became the subject of wars and political craziness. Henry VIII of England wanted her (his great niece) to marry his son Edward (who became Edward VI). Her mother, Mary of Guise, wanted her to renew the Auld Alliance and marry Francois, the Dauphin of France. Henry VIII came in with an army and sacked a few cities to try and get the Scots to agree to a betrothal (called the "rough wooing"). Given this touching display of romance, I'm not surprise the Scots ended up going with France over England. They smuggled Mary out of England to be raised in France by the time she was 5, partially due to constant issues with the English, but MOSTLY due to religious issues between Protestant and Catholic (Mary was Catholic).

Mary grew up at the French court, married the Dauphin, and was, for a short time, Queen of France AND Scotland, while her mother ruled as regent in her place. But Francois died, and Mary came back to Scotland to rule. It didn't go very well, there were a lot of religious tensions (things leaned Protestant, and Mary was thought to be too open about Catholicism), a lot of political tensions (a woman, rule?! God forbid!), and there were personal tensions as well. Mary was, by that time, very French, and clearly preferred her life in nice warm France to the Highlands. The Scots did not appreciate it at all. Mary then went and got married again, to Henry Lord Darnley. Apparently it was love at first sight, that then went VERY sour. Everyone else hated him too, but Mary said she didn't want his death "on her conscience". So some lords probably set up the plot that ended up murdering Darnley in a large gunpowder explosion. Mary then runs off with the Earl of Bothwell (charged with Darnley's murder, but acquitted), and marries HIM (she may have been forced to it, but no one really knows). She's forced to abdicate the throne and flee to England for asylum, Bothwell dies insane in a prison in Denmark. Mary is placed under house arrest in England where she stays for 19 years before being tempted into providing evidence of treason against Elizabeth I, who then has her executed. With history like this, why read a novel?

The exhibit on her was VERY good, with lots of maps and a nice timeline to guide you through, and a AV thing on who really murdered Darnley (answer, well everyone had a motive...).

We stopped for lunch at an AWESOME little cheese shop that had sandwiches! And then I FINALLY got my scone. Two. Covered in clotted cream and jam. Heaven.

We then visited the University of Edinburgh building, which has a fabulous library.


(They don't build 'em like that anymore, do they)

We then headed to the Greyfriars Kirk. It's a pretty little church with lovely gardens, and home of the Greyfriars' Bobby, a little terrier that stood by his old owner's grave for 14 years (don't worry, they did give him a doghouse). He even has his own little grave.


And statue.


The church is surrounded by old graves, some of which still have the iron gratings across, put there to stop grave robbers taking the bodies and selling them to the medical school as cadavers.


The garden contains pretty little plots of medicinal plants, with little tablets stating their purported uses. The man who managed the church chatted with us, and told us that the gardens are a form of therapy for some of the mentally ill.


(I don't know how Alex Wild does it. I could NOT get this bumble bee to pose)

We then wandered the Price St. gardens next to the castle. They are gorgeous, and have a nice memorial to Robert Louis Stevenson.


And a completely awesome clock that is made out of plants and WORKS!


For dinner we went to Wiski, where we enjoyed a delicious flight of...whiskies (of course), and more tasty haggis.


Then we raced off because we were almost late for...the Literary Pub Tour! Edinburgh is home to lot of the world's greatest authors (Burns, Stevenson, Scott, etc, etc), and the Edinburgh Literary Pub Tour takes you through some of their former haunts, stopping at each pub to have a drink and hear hilarious and interesting anecdotes. Really interesting and lots of fun! And a hint, when they say "the Bard" in Scotland, they don't mean Shakespeare. They mean Burns. We ended up at the Cafe Royal with a group from Sweden (hello, Malmo!!)


Day 4: Goodbye Edinburgh, Hello Newcastle!

After a breakfast where I finally discovered traditional Scots porridge (how do you make porridge?! Is it just...oatmeal? It's WAY better than oatmeal. Someone needs to teach me this. SO GOOD), we spent our final morning at the National Gallery of Scotland. It was small (half is closed for repair), but they had Rodin's "The Kiss" on loan, and the famous Skater painting and many others (also, can someone tell me what the HECK it means when a painting is described as "painterly"? What does that even MEAN?). A good collection of European art as well, though some of the subjects were a little weird. For example, there's a painting of St. Agatha (or a young girl posing as her namesake) posing holding a pair of her own breasts, which were cut off as St. Agatha earned her saintly status. So the girl is just posing there with a rose and a pair of breasts in one hand. Like you do.


(Intrepid neuron with roman busts. I'm pretty sure the one at center was on the cover of my first Latin Primer)

We snagged more cheese sandwiches for lunch and then I got a PASTY! I thought this would be an essential experience. Really, I'm surprised they haven't caught on in the US. Nice little handheld pie full of bacon and cheese. It's GOT to be a winner, right?!

We loved Edinburgh, but now we were coming to the real purpose of our journey: Hadrian's Wall, a Roman wall built starting in 122 CE (by the Emperor Hadrian, of course) to separate the Roman empire and the "wild" people of Scotland. It runs 73 miles from Newcastle Upon Tyne to Bowness on Solway. It's a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it also has a path running alongside it. If you like history, hiking, and beer, you can't possibly find a better way to spend a week. But I admit I was starting to get a little nervous. When we signed up for a tour (you hike on your own, but the tour means they put you in a B&B every night and take your bags on a truck. Because that is how I travel), the company emphasized that we should train and that the hike "should only be attempted by those who are used to a good walk" ("walk" being the UK version of "hike"). We...didn't train. We were hoping our long distance training would get us through.

But first we had to get to Newcastle, and ended up walking a good 1.5 miles with the packs to find our hotel (and an Italian dinner that, while cheap...did not go down well at all).


(Our hotel was across from a cricket pitch. We watched a while. We had NO idea what they were doing).

Day 5: Newcastle upon Tyne

Hadrian's Wall begins at Wallsend (yes) in Newcastle upon Tyne. You can hike the first day all through Newcastle. We decided to skip out on this first day, and instead spent the day seeing Newcastle itself. We started at the St. Thomas Becket church, where a very friendly guy who works there (and is from Texas, strangely enough), told us all about the church, how it was built originally to say "sorry" for the murder of St. Thomas a Becket (who, as far as I can tell, wasn't really all that great of a guy, but turned suddenly extremely holy when appointed the Archbishop of Canterbury. This did not agree well with the king, Henry II, who got him the appointment. Murder ensued), and how it was eventually moved to where it stands today. He had some great recommendations for places to eat and drink along the wall, and asked us to look out for the locals on the hike (the weather was unusually hot for the area, he worried they didn't carry enough water. But don't worry, we didn't see dehydration!).

We then headed to the Great North Museum, which has a fantastic interactive exhibit of Hadrian's Wall, with lots of characters and descriptions and a model of the temple of Mithras, which was found along the wall itself.


(Examples of Roman armor. Left is an Auxilliary, right is a man of the Legions)

Also, it had a giant deep sea crab.


(Giant Crab. Mr. S provided for scale)

Side Note: In Europe, Vodaphone stores have little lockers where you can charge your phone!! This is great as while our chargers had the right voltage...we did not realize they had the entirely wrong plug shape. You just put in a pound and lock the phone and take the key away. Come back, phone is charged! Saved our butts.

When then headed to St. Andrews, the oldest church in Newcastle. Most of it was built before the 13th century, but people have worshipped on the spot since before the Norman Conquest (1066).


(St. Andrews)


(An interesting memorial, dedicated to men who worked in the Newscastle Brewery and who died in the world wars. I thought it was kind of nice that the company would do that)

Next stop was St. Nicholas, the official Church of England Cathedral (as opposed to the Catholic Cathedral which is just down the street, and while also a Cathedral, is not a Church of England cathedral).


(St. Nicholas)

Then we hit up the "New Castle" (ever wonder where the city name came from?), built in 1080 by the eldest son of William the Conqueror (he of 1066 fame) as a wood fort, and then a stone castle was built by Henry II in 1177.


(The New Castle Keep)

The site, another nice high precipice, this one over a river, has been used for defense since Roman times (hence the wall). The castle was a last hold out of the Royalist group in Newcastle during the Civil War in 1644 until the Scots took it. Not much of a museum, but a very nice view from the top! We then headed back, picked up our packs, and took a bus to Heddon-on-the-Wall, to a nice little B&B called Hadrian's Barn (you know it's nice when you get your own cottage), and grabbed a super taste dinner at the local pub called the Swan (which has a "cutlery" which is basically a buffet with lots of meat). Tomorrow: the WALL! (Not that wall. Though I guess, in a way, winter is coming...)



(The Hadrian's Barn concierge. Not so great at recommending places to eat, but really knows his way around a frisbee. Snuggles and chase free of charge)

Final Edinburgh shot!


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Sci's BACK! Did you miss me?

Aug 05 2013 Published by under Synaptic Misfires

Because while I wasn't here, I left blog posts in my wake! At SciAm while I was gone, you could read about a sleep study that looked at food intake. Not surprisingly, sleep less, gain more. But what is it carbs? Fat? Protein? Head over and find out!

And not only that, I also wrote about sweet tooths. Sweet tooths and alcohol. If you've got a sweet tooth, do you drink more? What does that mean? Make sure to head over and check it out!

I'll be blogging my traveling adventures starting tomorrow, with lots of pictures! I've got a post up at SciAm today on 5-HT1A receptors, and how they might impact antidepressant effects, and regular science blogging will resume here on Friday!

In the meantime...what did I miss? Please let me know the most important thing I missed while out of the country in the comment (and yes, I know Snowden got asylum in Russia, so that doesn't count).


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