The guinea pigs that weren’t

You may have heard: Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York City, is worried about the health of his citizens. More specifically, he’s worried about obesity. So, a couple of months ago, in a rather drastic measure, he decided to introduce the NYC soda ban: to limit the sale of certain sugary soda drinks larger than 16 ounces (approx 0.5 l) in certain businesses overseen by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. However, back in March, one day before it was supposed to take effect, the ban was ruled unconstitutional by a State Supreme Court. Yesterday, the state’s Appeals Court decided that this previous ruling should be upheld.


Not that I am personally particularly worried about the caloric consumption or the health of NY citizens. No. I was, however, looking forward to one of the largest health experiments ever, with all those people roped in as unwilling experimental guinea pigs.

Guinea what? Why? How?

Guinea what? Why? How?

For one, it would have been a great behavioural experiment: would people have maintained the same volume of soda consumption, drinking a larger quantity of smaller volumes?

But more importantly – assuming that people would have reduced their soda consumption – would it really have made a difference? I mean, soda often comes up as a “culprit” in association studies between obesity and environmental factors, but these are mainly associations. And generally, the population with the highest soda consumption is also the one with highest consumption of unhealthy, high-calory food, partaking in less physical activities etc. So, there has been much to-and-fro about true causation and a possible fix. Therefore, I would have been extremely curious about the outcome of such a large-scale, long-term experiment, where this single variable is modified. I mean, clearly, it wouldn’t have been a perfect experiment (where’s the control group?), but from a scientific point of view, it could have been an interesting one…


Role models for yesterday and tomorrow: Rosalind Franklin vs Burka Avenger?

Over the last few days the internet has been buzzing with posts about Rosalind Franklin (see, for example, posts on the BioMed Central blog or The Guardian), sparked off by a google doodle on her 93rd birthday.


Rosalind Franklin was a female biophysicist, who was active in the mid-20th century, a period, when it was still unusual for women to follow a career in science. There is a wonderful biography by Brenda Maddox (Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA) about Rosalind’s life and career, which I can only recommend to anyone who enjoys a bit of non-fiction. I read the book when I was still at university, and found Rosalind’s life story and attitude towards science very inspiring. I was probably not the only one, because when I go to talks about women in science, I often hear her mentioned as a role model for girls and women today.

But role models only make sense in the context of their time and social environment. So in an era of globalization, when there is an increasing awareness of different cultures and social norms, maybe we also need new role models? By this, I don’t just mean contemporary female scientists who’ve achieved great things within a classical scientific career path, as one might follow in Europe or the US. I also mean that maybe girls and women in other countries might face completely different hurdles before they can even consider a career (in science). Thus, their role models might also have to tackle different problems…

Since this has been on my mind lately, I was rather happy when someone informed me about a new TV series, called “Burka Avenger”. It’s a cartoon, which is to air soon in Urdu language in Pakistan. Developed by a Pakistani pop singer, Aaron Haroon Rashid. The series promotes a number of social and environmental issues, including the importance of girls’ education. The main heroine is a school teacher, who – clad in billowing, dark burka, and using books and pens as weapons (like, literally) – fights the Taliban. Here’s the English trailer on youtube:

The message of the series might not appear very highbrow, compared to some of the “women in science” campaigns out there, but in a country where there even basic education for girls is part of a cultural battle, maybe Burka Avenger (and what she stands for) is the kind of role model that is needed? Every target audience should be addressed in a manner that is tailored to fit, and while the burka costume of the heroine might be seen by some as a sign of oppression, Rashid, the creator of the series points out: “She is using the burka to hide her identity like other superheroes. […] Since she is a woman, we could have dressed her up like Catwoman or Wonder Woman, but that probably wouldn’t have worked in Pakistan.” For sure, media coverage about the series seems to have raised awareness outside of Pakistan, let’s hope it also achieves it’s goal at home. And if nothing else, it looks like a quirky show to keep an eye on!


Back in 1948, a not-so-unknown producer and director, Alfred Hitchcock, presented audiences with one of his “most experimental” films, Rope. While the storyline (a murder, and the discovery of the murder) never garnered much attention, Hitchcock’s filming technique did: He used extremely long shots of approx 10 minutes each and almost no editing, which gives viewers the impression of events on screen occurring in continuous, real time. Yet, interestingly, the time that passes on screen (105 minutes) is not the same as the length of the film (81 minutes), but when you watch the movie, you don’t notice the disparity between film-time and real-time. I became aware of this phenomenon back in 2002, thanks to an article by Antonio R. Damasio in Scientific American. Damasio argues that one of the reasons we accept this time-disparity, is because our emotional status influences how we perceive time. Thus, when we are happy, we perceive time to pass more quickly, whereas when we are uncomfortable or worried (like, when we are watching a film about murder) time seems to pass more slowly. *

I had mentally filed away this knowledge as merely an interesting cocktail-party-fact, until recently…

I am currently enjoying a three-month summer vacation at home, after having completed my PhD and before starting my post-doc position in France. Well, at least I thought it would be a holiday. I had the vague notion that there were a couple of things I really wanted to do during this period, but friends who had taken in-between-jobs-time before, had warned me that often there is not much relaxation involved. So, I decided to keep plans at a minimum. Here the list:


I am now about a month into my holiday. I don’t feel very relaxed, yet. In fact, I largely feel like I’m on an emotional roller-coaster: some days I wake up, and feel like this:


Other days I think:


Interestingly, I have noticed that how I evaluate my progress is measured in whether or not there will be “enough time for everything”. I’m not sure what is cause and consequence: do I feel there won’t be enough time for everything, because I’m low and therefore perceive things to take longer in general? Or am I low, because I realize that things are taking longer than expected?

Not that I’m really complaining: a long time off is a great thing. Instead, I have the feeling that this to-do-list might end up being like that never-ending series of “last-experiment-to-wrap-up-this-story”. I’ve also come to realize that time-management might be considered a great transferable skill in science, but this does not mean that free-time-management is also a desirable activity. So the real challenge this summer is to learn how to have a proper holiday. I’ll add that to my to-do-list. And probably the three months in-between-jobs-time will be a too short period anyway, irrespective of it being a enjoyable time or a stressful time. After my postdoc I’ll take six months off…

* Not everyone agrees with Damasio. In a blog I found researching for this post, John August points out that “in movies, unless something seems wildly impossible […] audiences are extremely forgiving about time”.