In an exciting week, I’m reminded that science is less about knowing things with certainty, and much more about knowing how to deal with uncertainty. A growing debate amongst scientists regarding the best policies to fight the second wave of the pandemic draws attention to this.
It is joyful that, having run thousands of kilometres in Oxford, I continue to discover new routes that are fun, beautiful, challenging, and sometimes all three. This week was the first time I ran through Lye Valley Nature Reserve and Mesopotamia, Oxford.
Adrenaline is not the friend of efficient work. I had some exciting events occur this week, but as thrilling as they were, they cost a lot in disrupting and distracting from the routine.
Things take longer to read when you have less familiarity with them. I was surprised how long it took me to read a friends manuscript this week. I suspect that there is a parabolic curve on the [amount learned] vs. [time spent] graph. There is an optimal level of novelty where ideas are able to be grasped but not already understood, and the further away from that point the faster the intellectual returns diminish.
Living in a different timezone
A friend is working in a drastically different timezone to where they are living during the pandemic. An untested suggestion I made, inspired by the excessive Casey Neistat monitor set-up, is to loop a 24-hour video of a landscape set to be in the timezone of work (and hence sleep). I suspect that the subtle cues of being able to sense the time of day from a landscape help with shifting and living on a different timezone. More trivially, if you have to do this, shift your meals, exercise, caffeine, etc. onto the desired timezone, and black-out windows to prevent being woken by the local time-zone. This is something I’ve only ever had to do for short periods to pre-acclimatise before long distance flights.
I watched Howl’s Moving Castle on the weekend, finding myself repeatedly muttering under my breath “that’s beautiful” at the imagery. One piece of magic featured in the film is a door which, at the turn of a dial, opens onto four different locations. A discussion of the film that followed asked “if you could have a magic door connecting you to four places, where would you choose?”. A cynical answer would be to place doors in two cities with significant air traffic and charge for the teleportation service, e.g. near instant transport from London to Los Angeles. People have gamed real systems in this way. Perhaps the question is really asking “what are your four most important places”, e.g. a family home, your best friends house, your favourite holiday spot, and your place of work. Assuming the freedom to choose where to live, the playful question can have a very serious implication; where is the best place for someone to be?
I’m taking some holiday at the end of this week, and the change in routine is a moment for reflection. I have been thinking about the past years, the progress I’ve made and the things I still need to work on. A goal of this blog is to create posts that are interesting and useful to others, but also to maintain a routine of writing regularly. Moving forward I’ll (try again to) keep these weekly posts brief, and put more time into longer, higher quality posts.
Things that keep me happy
I am happy with my life, and part of that is having developed habits that cultivate happiness.
Physical Exercise Regular physical exercise. Days that start with sustained high-heart-rate exertion go better than days that do not.
Meditation and Mindfulness I’m learning to be more present, more focused, and more aware of my own thoughts. Practising meditation develops these skills.
Personal Reflection Knowing what actually happened in the past through written reflection helps me get a better perspective on my own life. I can keep myself accountable, and see a bigger picture to better plan and act.
Taking time to appreciate When things go well, or are pleasant, taking a little extra time to appreciate having those things in my life makes my usual focus on problems less of an emotional burden.
Good Relationships I am most appreciative to be able to call so many good people my friends.
Brief update; I am content. I have been feeling more confident generally about life this week. I am learning to perform my new role, from both success and failure. I am taking my time to appreciate good emotions, and not dwelling on bad ones. Physical training continues to plan. I have enjoyed several good conversations. Having identified my passion for engaging with talented and motivated people, I am fortunate that I get to do that so frequently at ONI.
Choosing a Perspective
Philosophy ought to come with a warning label. Dwelling too deeply into difficult, unanswered, and perhaps impossible questions carries the risk of becoming seriously lost in one’s own mind. A recent conversation ended with the question: If we can change how we feel about our experiences, thereby potentially enjoying any experience, which experiences should we choose (and choose to enjoy)? Intuitively we should choose to be happy and to do good in the world, but how do we pin down what is good in the world aside from what makes us and others happy?
I have been thinking about this David Foster Wallace speech (transcript). it focuses on choosing how you relate to people and describes a routine visit to a supermarket. Wallace asks the audience to consider hidden acts of compassion and kindness behind the people making up the frustrating queues and parking lots and highway traffic. Another, perhaps more simple, choice of perspective is to appreciate the supermarket itself. If the abundance and affordability of vegetables is celebrated, then a squeaky trolley wheel or a long queue pales compared to the miracle that the world has provided you food. For much of human history, much of human labour was spent securing a supply of food. Today for most that supply is trivial, and in my mind, worthy of appreciation.
Yesterday while drafting this I shared a quote from that speech: “The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.” Focusing on the shopping and not the shoppers can bring happiness through attention and awareness and discipline, but it does seem a trivial exercise compared with caring and sacrificing for others.
As scientific research on SARS-CoV-2 is published, the general public is becoming more aware of preprint servers, redaction, and the messy side of science. I have not kept up with the deluge of publications, but a few friends have been asking for my opinion on some headlines. I shared the following observation:
As universities shut down, scientists saw the opportunity to return to doing research (which they enjoy) by studying SARS-CoV-2 in their field. Hypothetically, a group that studies kidney disease, might look into the effect of COVID-19 on the kidney. It’s improbable that a respiratory disease improves kidney function, so if an effect is observed it is probably detrimental. The likely result will be a publication linking SARS-CoV-2 and kidney deterioration. It may well be the case that common strains of corona-virus or influenza (or any illness) have a similar negative effect on the kidney that, under normal circumstances, would not be of a sufficient magnitude or interest to investigate. In this way, scientific publications and the resulting mainstream media headlines might cause undue alarm simply due to the unusual focus of the entire scientific community on a single disease.
By a similar mechanism to over-policing, intensive research focus can make a disease seem worse than similar, less investigated diseases. Be careful what you look for, you might actually find it.
Quote I’m Pondering
You cannot hope to build a better world without improving the individuals. To that end each of us must work for his own improvement, and at the same time share a general responsibility for all humanity, our particular duty being to aid those to whom we think we can be most useful.
As a People Growth Engineer, my personal interest in self improvement is now linked to my professional responsibilities. ONI, through democratising life science research, is building a better world, but for us to achieve this we need to improve as a company, and therefore as individuals. Personal development and self improvement can feel selfish, but along with observing Curie’s duty “to aid those to whom we think we can be most useful”, individual improvements do lead to a better world for all.
Hesitate less – the lesson I’m trying to implement now
“I have not slept. Between the acting of a dreadful thing and the first motion, all the interim is like a phantasma or a hideous dream. The genius and the mortal instruments are then in council, and the state of man, like to a little kingdom, suffers then the nature of an insurrection.” (Julius Caesar 2.1.63-71)
I am noting when I hesitate, and attempting to hesitate less. Some decisions are better made after investing time to carefully consider the choice, particularly decisions where the costs are high, but many tasks are made more daunting by postponing them. Fear and doubt build, and the cost to act increases. To get more done, I ought to act with more urgency.
Some things to share:
Books and Blogs How to choose what to read, or listen to, or discuss? What ideas ought I visit (and subsequently consider, and sometimes write about). It is impossible to read everything. Roughly as many books fit in a shipping container as there are days in 100 years, and content comes in many forms beyond text. In this time of ubiquitous technology and physically distanced communication, each interaction begins with a choice of what content to consume, who to connect with. In a moment I could reach out to someone new, or call a close friend, or read the words of an author long dead and buried. Dwelling too much on that choice might lead to choosing nothing at all (see hesitation above), but making the right choice seems so important.
Too often I choose randomly. Occasionally I come across an abandoned blog, such as “Where’s my backpack?” and I want to study it, fearing the hosting will expire and the content will be lost (though archives of the web exist). On one rare instance I came across a blog and found myself. Part of why I write this blog is to refine and condense my thoughts, but as I approach my 100th post it becomes difficult to recall which topics I have already visited and what I have said about them. Simply to read my own words (of varying quality) now takes significant time. If in this moment your choice was reading my words, thank you, and please share your thoughts with me (my email).
Following the Killing of George Floyd in Minnesota, protests against racism have spread across the US and the world, including here in Oxford. The police should not kill people. People should not fear violence or death from the police. Black lives matter. Going beyond these general, and hopefully obvious, statements requires looking into an incredibly complex set of historical, socio-economic, and policy questions. I tried to read and synthesise a meaningful comment this weekend, and was overwhelmed. I fear that the outpouring of emotion in these protests becomes twisted into a force for further political polarisation. In 2014 Police Chief Edward Flynn made comments that have stuck with me since; it is worth remembering that the ugliness of the world is faced and fought daily by good people, and we ought not forget their courage and sacrifice when people who look like them do terrible things.
Priorities become clear in a crisis. The pandemic continues to dominate life, news, and my research. I continue to cope well despite long hours most days, largely (as I’ve discussed in the last couple weeks) due to a community of supportive people around me along with a good diet and regular exercise. Another reason I’ve noticed is “crisis mode” narrows my focus onto a few specific tasks, removing choices, and thus I avoid decision fatigue. I am lucky that there are so many possibilities in my regular life, but invariably I end up feeling torn between possible commitments. In lock-down I can only be at home or in the lab, so I am not choosing between interesting lectures in Oxford, or potential hiking trips, or social events. There is much less fear of missing out, when there is less to miss out on.
Other thoughts from the week:
Will ending lock-down lead to a sudden increase in injuries?
I suspect when lock-down ends and gyms reopen, some proportion of people returning to their workouts after several weeks off will injure themselves. There have been several unexpected effects of the pandemic, such as a decline in accident and emergency admissions (perhaps because increases in hand-washing have led to fewer incidents of food poisoning, or perhaps because people are afraid of contracting COVID-19 by going to hospital). Gyms are closed to prevent transmission of the disease, and so people are not training and their strength and technique are diminishing. Though I hope everyone will return to training accounting for the break when gyms eventually reopen, I suspect there will be a measurable minority who attempt to resume at their pre-lock-down fitness and overexert themselves, resulting in injury and increased demand on rehabilitation services.
Things that seem special may not be
SARS-CoV-2 likely originated in animals (probably bats), making it a zoonotic disease. Bats have been known to carry diseases that can be transmitted to humans including marburg, the previous SARS, and Ebola. Naturally this raises questions about some special attribute of bats that make them more likely to spawn pandemic generating viruses. This paper from the University of Glasgow suggests that the only thing “special” about bats is their diversity. Together with the commonly disease associated Rodentia (rodents), Chiroptera (bats) account for 3938 species, or 60% of all mammal species. If viruses are randomly distributed amongst mammals, and the ability of those viruses to then infect humans is similarly random, then the observed frequency of diseases like COVID-19 coming from bats is explained without any special attribute of bats themselves.
This is a good reminder of a general principle, that because what we observe is so small relative to totality of existence, we are much more likely to attribute “special” meaning to general phenomena. I think this is most useful to remember when it comes to relationship and personal problems, as we assume our uniqueness implies a uniqueness of our problems. An example from this TED talk on depression describes a couple who are both hiding their prescription for antidepressants from each other because they both feel the other could not possibly understand.
Oxford has grown quieter under the current lock-down. Government guidelines still allow for outdoor exercise, and so I have continued to run to and from the lab. The photos from the week capture some beautiful moments from these runs.
Children’s COVID-19 E-book A friend has written a children’s book on COVID-19, which you can download here. The link is also soliciting donations which will go to support medical charities fighting the pandemic.
Theory of Everything (2014) I’ve had this on my “to watch” list for a couple years. It focuses on the relationship between cosmologist Stephen Hawking and his first wife Jane through his scientific ascension and physical decline. I enjoyed the theatrical sets; the narrow blackboard-walled room where Penrose introduces black holes, the cold hospital where Hawking is diagnosed with ALS, and the sandstone quads and bridges of Cambridge. The relationship between Stephen and Jane is complicated by two love triangles involving Jonathan (who joins the family as friend and carer) and Elaine (a nurse to Stephen who became his second wife). However, when the real Jane says “There were four of us in our marriage“, rather than four people she is referring to Physics and ALS as the other two partners. I felt that the film prioritised the romantic tension between the characters over the more difficult to portray relationship vs career tension created by extreme devotion to physics, resulting in a compelling but less accurate story. The portrayal of scientists relies on Oxbridge archetypes and falls short of the political nuance of Contact (1997), one of my favourite films. For example, in a letter to Astronomy & Geophysics Adrian L Melott points out the missed opportunity to depict Dennis Sciama as a skilled mentor. You can watch the trailer via YouTube.
It has been an intense week. I am in the lab most waking hours working on COVID-19 projects. To make consecutive long days viable, I prioritise hard exercise in down time as I find it helps keep my health (physical and mental) in a good place. My efforts are only possible because the team at ONI is so supportive, be they working beside me at the bench, in the machine shop on the other side of the building, or coordinating supplies from home. It has been exhilarating to be part of a sudden surge in scientific effort, and I have found the wider scientific community to be universally selfless in their willingness to help.
Things to share this week
COVID-19 Again the media is dominated by discussion of the pandemic. I feel torn about adding to that noise, but my thoughts are now focused on that topic and primarily this blog is where I share what I am thinking about. I continue to be concerned that major media outlets, driven by the need to sell advertising clicks, are tasking journalists without the right medical literacy to create content without much consideration for how useful that content is. My suggestion remains: read from sources that specialise in the area, ignore conventional news coverage of the pandemic. A starting point: WHO Coronavirus Homepage Check with your local health services: US CDC, European CDC, UK NHS, Australia Department of Health. Journals for in depth scientific content: The Lancet, The New England Journal of Medicine, BMJ, and Nature.
My (uninformed) thoughts In Week 11 I was not worried. In Week 12 I was hit by exponential whiplash. My resolve is being tested as governments take economies into lock down and hospitals become overrun. In my note on death I commented that although only 5000 had died at the time of writing, the final toll would likely be in the millions. I take no joy in that prospect and I hope I will be proven wrong. That said, I also feel that stating “millions will die” without the context of the millions who already die each year incites fear beyond the reality of the situation. I stand by the importance of seeing this crisis in the context of others happening simultaneously, e.g. climate change, tropical disease, and obesity. We humans have an incredible power to see into the future, but such a limited desire to take the actions the future tasks us with. This pandemic makes me feel that only when the danger is close in space and time are we spurred to act, and this is something I wish I could change.
Collaboration Nature is running a podcast “Coronapod” and the sentiments from the start of this week’s post are echoed about 15 minutes in; scientists are coming together to help each other.
Hoarding There are reports that the UK is holding £1bn in food that was purchased as the COVID-19 situation became serious. While that is enough to leave me seeing shortages of flour and dry pasta on shelves, a quick division makes that number £15 per person, which means only a little extra spending over a week of “stocking up” can push the complex supply chain of fast moving consumer goods beyond its limits. This small change in perspective makes me feel less frustrated; an average family doubling up on their weekly shop seems foolish but understandable, compared with imagining panicked people filling their cars with pasta and toilet paper. Especially in Britain (where baking is a hobby as much as a source of nutrition) flour stocks could easily sell out as people newly working from home find the opportunity to bake. Furthermore, knowing that the system is tuned so finely to match regular demand makes me feel there is less waste than I had previously intuited. (Side note; in googling for articles on this I came across this guide to how supermarkets nudge you to spend more).