Life in optical

perspectives, photography and astronomy


Twitter infographic

I’m usually prolific on twitter but I have been shamefully silent for the last month :)

Today I came across a very cool online visualization tool called Will we soon we’ll be able to visualize as well as with processing, but all online? I don’t know but in the mantime they propose a fun twitter infographic tool that generates either a diagnostic of one’s twitter behaviour or a faceoff with another user. I’m more the peaceful type, so here’s my infographic. Apparently, I’m a politician lol!

Anyway, it’s a neat use of the twitter API with a fun graphical outcome :)

Happy new year everyone!

Two Open Knowledge events in Cape Town

On the Open Knowledge Foundation blog, Rufus Pollock and François Gray write:

There are two exciting open data and open knowledge events in Cape Town South Africa taking place in the next week (in which we’ll both be participating).

First up, this Saturday and Sunday, 19-20 November 2011, we’ll be holding an Open Data and Science hackfest at the African Institute of Mathematical Sciences.

Then next Tuesday, from 6:30pm-8:30pm an Open Knowledge Meetup (#OpenMeetupCT) is being organized for those interested in Open Data, Open Content and Open Source.

We are going to attend both – inspiration and follow-up for Science Hack Day Cape Town? The community is building up!…

More info on these events can be found here:
1. Africa@Home Hackfest at AIMS
2. #OpenMeetupCT

Science Education for Girls and Women: a tool for attaining the Millenium development goals by 2015.

Jan Visser from the Learning Development Institute put me in touch with Binta Ibrahim, founder of B Da Best Concepts, an educational NGO in Nigeria whose mission is to invest in people, projects and programmes by building resources for gender development, training and research.

Binta has organised a number of science, education and outreach events to celebrate the International Year of Chemistry 2011 in the region of Calabar, in Nigeria. She kindly asked me to come along to the closing event to address an audience of young Nigerian students, all girls, and to discuss how science education for girls and women can contribute to reaching the  Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). I could not travel there unfortunately but I sent Binta my thoughts on the subject, and I am now sharing them here. I’d be grateful for any feedback.

SCIENCE EDUCATION FOR GIRLS AND WOMEN: a tool for attaining the Millenium development goals MDGs by 2015.

In celebrating this International year of Chemistry, we are celebrating the field of science in which women are twice as successful earning Nobel prizes than in physics. This is possibly something to be proud of, but with caution: there are 4 women Nobel laureates in Chemistry for 2 in Physics… In the history of Nobel prizes, only 13 women have received a Nobel in the sciences; the Curies, mother and daughter being a flagship example with three of 14 prizes. African women have had no representative at all in the sciences. In fact, Africans – male and female – have only received Nobel prizes in peace and literature.

Why do I bring this up? The Nobel, after all, is barely something accessible to the many, so why even hold it as a secret ambition? Well because as children, we all dream to be like someone great and in the fields of science, the Nobel laureates are the most greatly recognized heroes. To strive for the best, we need to identify with those who have reached it.

So let us get back to basics, to that moment when we are children, and we look up to the world of grown-ups and try to figure out what we can become in this world, like Irène Joliot-Curie looked up at her mother, Marie Curie.

First, we look at our mothers, or at those who raise us like a mother. They are the the ones who define our world in our early years. And our mothers have a great gift for us: their endless love is there to push us beyond what they have reached. And this, I believe, is a mother’s gift. Allow me to generalize crudely – cultural standards do this all the time. Many fathers want their sons to be the same as them: have the same profession, carry on a legacy. How many stories, books, movies, have you heard of sons disappointing their fathers by choosing a different path but ending up going where their fathers would not have imagined they could get to? Mothers often don’t stop there – they wish for their children to go further than they themselves have gone.

Daphney Singo, a South African nuclear physicist finishing her PhD this month – is the daughter of a woman who worked as a domestic worker in segregated apartheid South Africa. She gets her inspiration from her mother. Daphney quotes her mother as saying: “Education, my girl, is the husband that will never leave you.” In other words, her mother, regardless of her education and background, is her inspiration and her role model. Today, Daphney is an ordinary girl, who has achieved extraordinary things in her young life. Imagine who Daphney’s daughter – if she has one, one day – will get her inspiration from!

Education is definitely one of the best assets for life one can receive. Education is an experience, and unlike material things, experiences can never be stolen or taken away from you. Education is a toolbox for life; it is a bag of tricks that make it easier to make sense of the complex world we evolve in.

Now why is science education in particular so important?

Firstly, don’t believe those who say that science is too difficult for girls! There is nothing in this world, other than historical privilege, that has prevented women from shining in the sciences as much as men. No brain size difference, no biological reasons, nothing.

As many girls are gifted in the sciences as boys, and this gift is something that many school systems unfortunately tame at an early age. But if interest in the sciences may be lost among girls at school, potential is not.

Science in our minds

Science is a body of “knowledge”, understood as information and ways to understand that information, that helps us work out how the world functions, and how to use that to our advantage. But science is in fact much more that that.

There would not be science without people doing it. And to those people, science is a school of thought of a particular kind. Let me enumerate some of the qualities of science:

Science is a school of thought that does not fear being questioned, that does not fear changing and constantly improving.

Science is selfless, in the sense that status does not equate truth or wisdom. Science works by younger people seeing further than those who taught them, feel free to contradict their elders in mutual respect and to reach beyond, to new ideas and new understandings.

Science is ethical. It is a quest to further that knowledge, and it relies on that knowledge being shared to grow. It is quintessentially cooperative, not competitive.

In fact, science is enriched by diversity: the international scientific community is probably one of the most diverse professional communities in the world in terms of culture, countries of origin, gender, etc. There is still a long way to go for equality, but diversity is definitely there.

Science in empowering. It teaches us to think, to solve problems and to improve situations. Scientific thinking is the capacity to keep together a logical train of thought, to rationally consider data and evidence and to creatively develop a new idea that does not suffer from  partiality to opinions.

Built over millennia with its roots in all cultures, scientific thinking is an incredibly useful asset in life and a heritage of all humanity.

I am not saying that those not studying science do not have the qualities above. Quite the contrary; I believe that everyone has those qualities, and that studying science helps reveal them.

Imagine if girls and women all had equal access to scientific thinking – it would be quite natural I think: not fearing change, being selfless, ethical, cooperative, enriched by diversity, and empowered with thinking tools to solve problems. Why hold back on teaching those skills to girls?

The millennium development goals, aka MDGs.

The world today faces huge challenges. In the year 2000, the United Nations published 8 goals, which, if reached before 2015, would improve the world’s and humanity’s health significantly.

We are far from reaching these goals. We are set back by a lack of leadership internationally – like often happens when responsibility is shared and so would credit for solving issues. Three of these goals specifically mention girls and women: MDGs Promote gender equality and empower women – Reduce child mortality rates – and Improve maternal health.

The reason for this focus, I believe, is that (a) women are underprivileged in many countries in terms of access to education, health, and economic independence, (b) their responsibility in ensuring a healthy next generation is recognized and (c) it is recognized that women’s potential contribution to development could be the key to some of the world’s challenges. The millennium development goals aimed at women and girls are an attempt at creating conditions around the world, in which that potential can reveal itself.

I would like to think beyond the three goals a little and see how a population of scientifically educated women can make a difference:

I have a nice story I would like to share about one of these goals; reduce child mortality. Angelina Lutambi from Tanzania is a student who originally studied mathematics, the basic language of science. Her studies led her to study populations and the interaction of populations and their environment. More specifically, after getting a postgraduate degree in mathematics in Africa, she did her PhD in Switzerland where she studied her own country’s population and the effect of the environment on child mortality. She is now a world leader in the field, working as a scientist back home in Tanzania, at the Ifakara Health Institute in Dar-es-Salaam.

MDG Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger

A decade ago a World Bank study reported that income that women earn is more likely to be used productively, in terms of promoting family well-being and health, than men’s income.” says Karol Boudreaux, advisor to the Accelerating Women Entrepreneurs Alliance . It has been shown by many studies that a woman earning enough to live, makes many more people live around her. Women weave a society of solidarity that holds other people in its fabric. The better educated, the better the opportunities for women, the more people their prosperity will reach. Add to that scientific thinking skills that women apply beyond the realm of their work, and everyone is better off!

MDG Achieve universal primary education

Scientific thinking is a wonderful asset, but unlike artistic talent that needs cultivation, scientific thinking needs to be learnt first, and then cultivated. Access to education is therefore crucial for this great heritage of humanity to be made available to women.

The United Nations indicate as a specific indicator of this MDG, “Literacy of 15-24 year olds, female and male” – to which I would add “Numeracy” because like music, science does not speak one language and therefore anyone can do it. Much conflict  in the world is avoided by understanding each other and sharing a common language.

MDG Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases – and

MDG Ensure environmental sustainability

The contribution of science to developing solutions and coping mechanisms for these two great challenges goes without saying. What I would add, though, is that the non-scientific knowledge of the human context in which these challenges manifest themselves is paramount to creating sustainable solutions.

Take HIV/AIDS as an example. Imagine a woman who is trained in the sciences, perhaps, chemistry, working on HIV/AIDS medication. She comes from a place where many of her friends, maybe even herself, have lost family members and loved ones to the terrible disease. But she comes from that culture, and she knows how it spreads. She knows the habits of society, the peer pressure, and other things that make people still catch the virus or refuse to get help, or simply not have access to help. In her work developing cures, she will instinctively think of an appropriate way of delivering medicine: if in her culture, pills seem foreign and are not trusted, she will perhaps create a liquid medicine instead. Or she will ensure that the medicine does not need to be injected in sick patients, because hospitals in that area are face a shortage of clean needles. Only she can know that because she comes from there.

Now take an example of loss of biodiversity – a certain plant in some region of the world is disappearing fast. This is most likely a developing region, because that is where large forests are cut down to grow cheap monoculture natural resources for export to a greedy developed world. Another woman scientist from that region realizes that although a certain plant is declared extinct, she remembers her grandmother keeping dry seeds of this plant for many years because, her grandmother had told her, in a year of shortage, the seeds would still germinate. She goes and finds seeds in the villages in this area where none of the international scientists, nor her male colleagues, would have thought of looking, and she  starts a program of conservation of that species.

Aren’t these nice stories? In fact, I wish they were not invented. I must confess that I made them up. But when I think of science and when I see women from regions that are hit the most by the world’s challenges, I foresee stories like this. And it is in young women like yourselves that I see tomorrow’s solutions to today’s problems. Were I with you today, I would see it in every one of you.

So from the bottom of my heart, I congratulate you for having kept your interest in the sciences alive, on celebrating the International year of Chemistry, and I wish to meet you one day, shining in the light of your revealed potential.

I believe in you, and so does the world – in fact, the world needs you and even if the conditions in which we live are sometimes difficult, perhaps a little scientific thinking can help resolve a few problems and open the path to greater times.

Thank you again for inviting me to address you today and I wish you all a brilliant future.


Christina’s Memorial

Christina Scott’s memorial will take place on November 5, 2011 at 11:00 for 11:30.
Venue: Rustenburg Girls Junior School in Rondebosch, Cape Town.
Feel free to spread the word, it’s an open event.
The memorial will reflect Christina’s amazing character: it will be a celebration of her life. Bright colours recommended!
Any messages or photos to share can be sent to

RIP Christina Scott

Christina Scott

Christina Scott…

The first time I saw her name was on the website. I read, or rather devoured everything she wrote. I was an instant groupie. In fact, when I met her the first time, Kevin was making fun of me because I was totally star struck, as in Michael Jackson kind of star struck…

…and what a star!

The sun is a star: a boiling ball of burning gas that powers every life form on Earth and give the solar system its splendid beauty. And as Christina loved dodgy science analogies, this is a particularly appropriate one: she was a boiling ball of energy radiating in all directions, giving life to science journalism in Africa and beyond, and she gave us quirky scientists a voice that would, with her guidance, sing the beauty of science.

Christina in a few words

Energy – She was an engine that drove everyone who was lucky to come her way. Nobody could orbit Christina without getting a serious slingshot effect boost in energy, perspective, fun and life joy. Christina was a powerhouse. Whenever Kevin was away, she made it a point to always call me and invite me to everything she was doing – she really looked after me! And when he was around, she called us too. Of course we wish we could have come along to more things.

Humour – It was impossible to spend any time with Christina without having an insane amount of fun. Christina’s wit and her infectious positive spirit caught the sharpest minds by surprise and made everyone laugh all the time. She made the most obscure fields of science approchable by not taking anything too seriously. A unique talent for life. She loved sciencey puns. The last show of hers I attended was just before the IAC. Let’s just say that the message was: youth should aim for the stars, that opportunities for young people in science are out of this world.
That the line-up of her shows used to be cosmic and that the constellation of her fans resembled more a galaxy! We are all devastated to not have a chance to see her become a dinosaur

With Kevin in the studio before Christina's show

MentoringChristina has been described as the mother of science journalism in Africa. Her role in mentoring young journalists and getting them interested in science was immense… But she also made scientists talk and that’s not easy… Her weekly radio show on SAfm “Science Matters” was a safe space for a dialogue (in her own words). I was lucky to be on her show a few times. Her talent was not only in running a great show, but in making anyone feel comfortable on the radio. She made the studio feel like a comfortable lounge to the most nervous of guests. She drew us in, made us feel good and pulled the best out of everyone of us effortlessly. No wonder we all loved being around her!
She would also invite everyone to everything – she would make scientists meet journalists over lunch on a Saturday not because it was newsworthy but because she couldn’t help but create opportunities for everyone to grow, all the time.

Christina tackling a full house of scientists at CAP2010

Passion – for science, for communication and for people, young people, and most of all, her own children. Like all of her wonderful traits, it was contagious. She would get passionate about anything interesting! Daisy, her trademark yellow car was covered in stickers ‘I dig fossils’, ‘NASA’, ‘MTN Sciencentre’ (now Cape Town Science Centre), ‘SciFest Africa‘, etc. She would drive around with a paper skeleton on her passenger seat. She would spend hours listening to other people’s passions, embrace them and share them with the rest of the world. She would find the most interesting events to attend: a botanical tour of Rondebosch common, a special science journalists’ debate in town, a visit of the rare species conservation programme at Kirstenbosch, Diwali on the beach in Muizenberg… everything at 100%!

Christina and her book

Her kids are all absolutely wonderful, and she was so proud of them. She gave them her best: her spirit, her passion, her incredible mind. She was also proud of every young person she mentored. It showed in the way she did everything, in the way she trusted and gave opportunities to everyone.

I could keep going. Bottom line is, we may have reached 7 billion but Monday saw the world lose one of its heroes. We are thinking of her children and of her family and hope they know they will not be alone; their mum’s passion lives in them. We were all infected by her energy and her legacy will last for a very, very long time!

Ciao Christina. We’ll never forget you.

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