The End of the Mysterious Dead

Or why I'm glad my Papa didn't have Instagram ~ Brain Reel #32

Last night I dreamt of my Papa.

I was in some kind of alternative universe where I could log into his Instagram account and scroll through the archive of his stories. And I watched his life play out; day by day, hour by hour, story tile by story tile.

I watched him boast about the tennis skills he seemingly had, followed him through airports as he travelled for work, looked at photos of him and my gran and him and my mum - along with the gifs and the text and the emojis proving his love and pride.

I also saw things I didn't really want to see. I could tell he was shallow sometimes in the way he wrote his captions, and sometimes he said things that were a bit offensive in the video snippets I watched, and - it was a dream, remember - I think he was having an affair?

When I woke up, I felt like my estimation of him had gone down somehow. And I was thankful it was all just a dream. But it got me thinking about the mystery of dead loved ones, and how perhaps there will be less of that for generations to come.

See, my Papa died when I was 3. He was 58. He had a heart attack, and it came out of nowhere. And all my life I've been told that I get many of my creative traits from him - my art, my music - traits that I'm really proud of (though tend to only really indulge in privately).

I was his third grandchild; twin boys a year before me, my brother Ross 2 years after me, he died before my other brother Gordon was born - and I’m told, maybe because I was the only girl and I was pretty boisterous as a child, that I was the one he doted on. Knowing that has always made the fact of him not being here for most of my life pretty hard to stomach.

Despite him dying when I was such a young age, I still feel he’s played a huge role in my life. I have an amazingly supportive family, but sometimes growing up, when I’d get upset about the stuff I felt no one else could understand, I'd tell myself he would’ve got it, and it’d make me even more sad then knowing he wasn't there to comfort me or hear my side of the story.

I’m very easily reduced to tears thinking about him, which sometimes feels overly self-indulgent considering how little I knew him. Maybe I’m mourning the loss of the idea of this person I've been told so much about; this incredible person so similar to me, who loved me, that I didn't get to hang out with.

The reality is, though, there's a lot of mystery to my Papa.

Of course, I'm relying on stories and anecdotes and the tears of those who knew him well to paint this incredible picture of him. We have some video of him, from that little snippet of time between the point when camcorders were affordable enough for ordinary folk to own, and the point when he died.

Realistically, I don't know him at all. I can't remember, I don't think, him in person - I think I only 'remember' the stuff on the video tapes and the stories I've been told. I have a photo of him up on my wall right behind my laptop - grinning away semi-mischievously, clutching my gran with love - and it ties in perfectly with my image of him; but maybe that photo is what gave me that image in the first place.

So I wonder, if I could have logged into his Instagram account as a kid, and scrolled through the archive of his stories (setting aside for a second the fact that Instagram was founded 17 years after his death), what would that have done for my image of him throughout my life? Would it bring my version of him now crashing down?

Of course, people have read their ancestor’s diaries and sifted through treasures found in the attic. Finding out about your relatives’ inner lives isn’t unique to the internet age. But it’s also true that I feel as if seen a friend recently just because I see them post online, when in fact it's been months. There’s a certain intimacy in watching ‘very online’ people display their lives on screen; you really do feel like you know what they’re like, and you feel - sometimes - like you yourself are part of it.

And if my Papa's Instagram was there, I'd scroll through it. And if I could log in, of course I'd look back through the stories archive, and god I'd probably read his DMs. I've been hungry for information about him all my life, to add to this image of him I've turned to for motivation and for solace.

I've not had someone close to me die who is also very online. I’m not sure social media platforms are old enough to really allow for kids to be born, grow up and then discover a dead relative who was super active in posting about their lives - there’s only been 10 years of Instagram after all.

So as time marches on, and future very online grandparents die before their grandchildren are born, or when they’re too young to know them, will their mystery be solved? Will those grandkids really get to know their dead grandparents through their rambling stories and self-indulgent captions? Will they like them, seeing their life play out through their own words, as opposed to via the passed on, often rose-tinted, stories?

It would never be enough though. In my dream, I'd scrolled through everything - all the stories - and although I'd got to see Papa's life play out in front of me, I still felt like I didn't know him. It was a bounded archive, about which I couldn’t ask for more.

I guess there's something to be said about the mystery of my Papa. I have perhaps an unrealistic and over-simplified version of him that exists in my mind, but I love that version of him - and I don't want him to go anywhere.

And knowing someone through posts and photos and voice memos that weren't for you, that were for someone else, or an audience of people that existed before you were born...it's never going to fill the gap of wanting to get to know the person through what they say to you, how they act towards you, what they write in messages meant for you.

If my Papa had an Instagram, I'd just be an onlooker, like everyone else. In fact, everyone would have got to see it years before me. I’d be late to the party. When folk tell me about my Papa, it feels so unjust that I don't get to learn this stuff first hand, that I have to rely on things people tell me about how they perceived him themselves. He could have been so different around me than around them, who knows? Not me. And no amount of digital archive would change that.

I wonder if some future ancestor of mine will read this - or is reading this right now. I guess we all want to be understood - or, not misunderstood. What will they get from reading this post? Am I still a mystery? Do you like me?


📌 Tip Reel 📌

I know I linked to a Rachel Connolly piece in the last newsletter, but glorious writing is glorious writing, and here’s her latest triumph on Silicon Valley, how tech cannot save us right now and how “the motivation to work toward mitigating disaster is minimal for those with the most power to do so”.

This piece from a few years ago in the FT - The speaker’s circuit is where original thinkers go to die - is hilarious and true, and it calmed a lot of whirling crappy thoughts I was having recently about measuring success. (Paywalled)

My pal Heather is a wonderful writer and she has a story in this anthology called ‘Outsiders’. Seemingly her story is about bizarre pandemics sweeping through populations, which she wrote 18 months ago... I’ve just pre-ordered, you should do the same. I mean, just look at this blurb:

This is an anthology about people who don’t fit in. These stories explore what it is to be an outsider, from some of the most exciting voices in short fiction.

From lovers to loners, moonlighters to midnight walkers, these pages are haunted by more than ghosts: loss, lack of direction, insecurity and otherworldly hunger. 

But most importantly, it asks the question: if we’re us, then who are you?

Bonus: My dad went viral last week and for the most incredible birthday present.

Currently reading:


🕯 What I’m Up To 🕯

Science Disrupt podcast

Our latest episode is with Rutger Bregman (iTunes / Spotify), author of Humankind: A Hopeful History (2020) and Utopia For Realists (2014), about what it means to go back through the history of science and revise big ideas, how being an activist and an academic fit together, and whether kindness really is ‘enough’ to uproot problematic societal systems and actually change the world.

Smoke & Mirrors

I was interviewed on The Extraordinary Business Book Club podcast about media hype (and who's to blame), the arduous process of getting ideas out your head into book form, why there's no shortcut to just doing the hard thing, and why (some kinds of) business books aren’t great. You can listen to the episode here!


Find me elsewhere on TwitterFacebookLinkedInGoodreadsInstagramMedium, or through my website.

Until next time,
Gemma 🚀


Gemma Milne is a science & tech writer, author of ‘Smoke & Mirrors: How Hype Obscures the Future and How to See Past It’, and is co-host of the Science Disrupt podcast.

Shocking Myself

And how you can do it too ~ Brain Reel #31

Like many people this week, I’ve bought a load of books. There have been countless lists and threads and tagged posts, and the bookshops have run out of so many of the most cited titles.

But a few days ago, Lawrence and I did what I hope many white people are also doing right now: we took a look at what was already on our bookcase. We pulled out every book written by someone who isn’t white, and then made a pile specifically of those books written by black people.

I’m sure you can guess what happened: of course, both the ‘not white’ and ‘black’ piles were far too small.

I knew they’d be small before we began - I wasn’t under any illusions that I, or the publishing industry, have made a concerted long-term effort at ensuring there’s representation in the books out there - but I was shocked at quite how small those piles were.

I had thought better of myself, clearly, and I was wrong.

~

The last 10 days have been - for me - a series of moments of shocking myself.

Shocking myself at how many very vocal people I’ve been following online who’ve now retreated into complicit silence.

Shocking myself at how little I know about police funding, about previous very famous cases of innocent black lives lost, about migration.

Shocking myself at how few times I’ve written to my MP before.

The list goes on.

~

Of course, I’m not saying much more than so many writers right now - that the last 10 days has been an uncomfortable reckoning at how little we all know, how little we all act, how little we all speak up, no matter how much we think we’ve been active in the past.

‘I’ve not been doing nothing, but it’s not been enough’ - the mass realisation, it seems, of many in my (vocal) online circles.

~

All this shocking of myself has been deeply uncomfortable, there’s no denying it, but there’s one thing I’ve been shocked by which is making me feel more good than uncomfortable, more positive than negative, and more hopeful than dejected.

I’ve shocked myself at how easy it starts to feel to be honest and loud in your opinions the more you do it.

Now, if I was sitting reading this newsletter right now, wherever you might be, I’d be pretty disappointed at that ‘punch line’ - but let me ask you this:

How many times have you considered bringing up something you disagree with with a pal, and backed out in the end because of fear of upsetting them, of rocking the boat, of losing the friendship?

How many times have you bit your lip over something ‘trivial’ because it’s ‘not worth the hassle’?

How many times have you seen someone you like or respect online post something misinformed, but ‘only borderline-not-ok’, and scrolled quickly away without commenting or confronting?

How many times have you done any of that over the last 10 days? Really, how many?

I ask this not to play ‘gotcha’ and not to make you feel crap (though, seriously, white people need to get a lot better at just sitting in that feeling every now and again). I ask instead to shock you - like I shocked myself - into really, genuinely, looking at how much standing up for stuff you really do, and quite possibly, realising that it’s actually not that much.

And I want to tell you that - honestly - once you start speaking up, it gets so much easier.

Over the last 10 days I’ve spoke up in WhatsApp groups, in Zoom meetings, over the phone to a friend, in DMs to someone I don’t know, in comments on Instagram posts, and - I guess - here in my writing. It’s felt extremely uncomfortable, my heart has felt like it’s going to blast out of my chest, I’ve worried so much, I’ve gone back and forth with Lawrence about how best to word a 2-sentence Twitter DM.

It’s not just calling out the blatant, obvious racism with our sarcastic quote tweets. It’s about interjecting when something inappropriate is said, regardless if the person ‘meant it’ or not; it’s about kindly prodding someone to clarify their thoughts (or remove well-meaning but ultimately ill-informed public statements); it’s about filling those uncomfortable silences with your own voice; it’s about writing down what you think and putting it out there with the openness that you might have made an error, instead of saying nothing at all (maybe someone will enlighten me as to why what I’ve wrote here is bullshit; please, do, if you think so).

I’m not perfect at it, granted, but I’m trying. It’s getting easier to push away the fear I have before I speak. And I’m feeling less guilty, less complicit, less helpless.

If you need to start with the bookcase, start with the bookcase. Pull out those books written by people who aren’t white. Shock yourself.

Then try speaking up. It’s hard, but it gets easier. Be open to being shocked by that, instead of succumbing to the fear stopping you.


📌 Tip Reel 📌

I got a *lot* from this piece in Vulture by Lauren Michele Jackson asking what anti-racist reading lists are for. As I said, I’ve bought quite a few new books off the back of recommendations from amazing people over the last few days - this piece by Jackson got me thinking about what it really means to ‘read about all this’ and to really consider exactly how you go about crucial self-education.

And speaking of anti-racist lists - this open anti-racist resource Google Doc from Titi Tasha is thorough and structured and has books, articles, podcasts, Patreons and all sorts. I found it so helpful to ‘map’ the journey.

Bit late to the party on this piece by Rachel Connolly (it’s from February) all about brands and late capitalism - a sample:

Every brand and company and product is, of course, an instrument of capitalism. It isn’t sharp or perceptive to point this out; it’s stating the obvious. These essays do a lot of work, but that work is less about identifying an under-reported phenomenon, or illuminating a new way of thinking about life under capitalism, and more about absolving readers of their participation, however active or enthusiastic, in it. At what point does participation cross over from subjugation and become, instead, complicity? At what point does complicity become propagation?

Jason Okundaye has written this brilliant piece in iD around police participation at Pride. He has also written to the organisers of Pride in London and shared this email template urging others to send an email too. (I’ve sent an email.)

Currently reading:


🕯 What I’m Up To 🕯

Science Disrupt podcast

Our latest episode was with Sabine Hossenfelder (iTunes / Spotify), all about how physicists are being led astray with their insistence on finding beauty over data - Sabine is a cracking writer, thinker and physicist so this was such a fun chat with her (especially as I’m all about the beauty in maths..!)

Smoke & Mirrors

Next event I’m speaking about my book Smoke & Mirrors will be next week at CogX at 5.30-6pm on the 9th June - I’m being interviewed by Matt Clifford of Entrepreneur First about hype in the cutting edge startup world. I’m also interviewing a personal hero of mine (he is part of the reason I ended up studying maths at uni…) Marcus du Sautoy, about creativity and intelligence earlier the same day (10am).

-> I have a bunch of free passes to the whole festival if you want to join - use code: SPCXSFP100

Currently Working On

Still working through my thinking on a piece to do with the ‘economy of experts’ in terms of gurus, public intellectuals, academics, advisors, consultants…and what the internet has done for credibility, ‘expertise’ and trust.


Find me elsewhere on TwitterFacebookLinkedInGoodreadsInstagramMedium, or through my website.

Until next time,
Gemma 🚀


Gemma Milne is a science & tech writer, author of ‘Smoke & Mirrors: How Hype Obscures the Future and How to See Past It’, and is co-host of the Science Disrupt podcast.

Why I'm Reading Marx

And why you should too ~ Brain Reel #30

When my partner declared a few weeks ago that he’d just ordered a copy of Marx’s Capital (vol 1), my immediate response was something along the lines of:

Really? It’s a bit long. Can’t you read a summary? Surely it’s a bit out of date nowadays anyway? Isn’t reading the whole thing cover to cover only for those radical lefties? Isn’t Marx a bit extreme? Good luck with that.

And I suspect for many of you reading this right now, something similar comes to mind.

Now, I’m a fan of AOC as much as the next person; I’m outraged when I see companies like Uber, Tesla and Amazon treat their workers horrifically; and I’ve never been able to understand how anyone can vote Tory.

But as much as I have always identified as being ‘on the left’, and despite always thinking of accumulation of capital for its own sake as ‘wrong’ somehow, I guess I’ve also seen companies and markets and division of labour/owners necessary somewhat.

I’m not writing this to tell you I’ve had some ‘coming to God’ moment, but because recently I’ve been reading more, and thinking more, and seeing ever more problematic behaviour and systems, and it’s made me realise - frankly - how little I’ve really thought about how much of what I believe is based on certain underlying assumptions brought about by unconscious socially-constructed ideas throughout my life.

When really challenged, I couldn’t really give a good coherent answer for why I didn’t understand why people voted Tory in years gone by (is it just because culturally in Scotland it’s more of a no-no or something deeper?), or why AOC is so great (what does it mean to think someone political is awesome when I can’t fully express my foundational political beliefs?), or why these companies were so bad (ok that one was more obvious…)

And I wonder if maybe it’s the same for you.

~

In high school, we had a class called Modern Studies. I hated it. I thought of politics as boring, as something that didn’t really affect me, as something way too subjective (I ended up studying pure maths at uni, if that helps give an indication of where my head was at). The only things I took away from that Modern Studies class is learning about the death penalty in the US, and - crucially (worryingly, in hindsight) - that democracy and capitalism are inextricably linked, and socialism is communism-lite.

And to be honest, I’ve never properly unpacked these unqualified axioms of sorts I had floating unconsciously in my mind, which I suspect have had more of a role in forming my views on society than I’d like to admit.

I’ve been following the social democratic movement for the last few years like the rest of us, cheering it on and adding my hope to the movement, but I’ve had this nagging thought at the back of my mind: ‘this can’t really work, though, can it?’

~

Working on a book over the last few years that was about unpacking the system of science and tech means I’ve spent a lot of time researching, thinking about and questioning why and how ‘progress’ happens the way that it does. And throughout this time, I’ve become more and more aware of how broken so many societal systems are at their core, and how no matter how much reformation happens in science and tech, it all comes back to something bigger, somewhat outside its control, outside its expertise and outside those of us commentating on its’ level of knowledge.

I haven’t had the language to express properly what I think in a meaningful way; my political understanding hasn’t been strong enough to really lay out my arguments sufficiently; I don’t have the foundational academic understanding to clearly think through and communicate what’s been there nagging at me. These paragraphs are vague for a reason.

Which brings me to Marx.

(Well, to a few other books and articles and writers and podcasts and academics first, but it doesn’t take long to end up at Marx when you start questioning how and why society right now ‘isn’t working’.)

I made a decision a few weeks ago to properly educate myself. About markets and economics and politics and value and philosophy and all that stuff those in power learn about in their Oxford PPE lectures. This maths nerd was going to embark upon something us maths and science grads tend to scoff at…a journey into ~the humanities~

And I don’t mean that no maths or science grad understands this stuff - heck, I’ve had a good enough understanding until now, probably better than average I suspect, through the books and films and podcasts I’ve been consuming over the years, through the jobs I’ve been in, and through my more general curiosity.

It’s not revolutionary to say ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’, but it is to take it to heart and apply it to yourself.

I know that I don’t know a lot. And I’d now like to learn it. Not just for fun (though I am having a great time) but so I can better form my thoughts, better argue my moralistic view of the world, better debate with those I disagree with, better understand the political factions and what they’re really campaigning for, better come to terms with what I think the next steps for society really are, and better challenge why I believe some things as opposed to simply for the purpose of justifying existing ideas.

I think many of us think we know a lot - the last year has made me realise how much I have to learn. Admitting that here to you, frankly, isn’t very easy. It’s like admitting that even though I’m meant to be an ‘expert’ on science and tech, and that I’ve wrote a whole book on underlying systems, that I’m some kind of ‘imposter’, really.

But I suspect that’s why many people don’t bother trying to really understand the world. It feels like an exposure of themselves as unknowing. It feels uncomfortable to be faced with ideas and knowledge and research and data which undercuts things you’ve believed for years; which confuses you; which perhaps makes you feel guilty or complicit.

It’s what’s been stopping me, if I’m to be really honest with you.

~

And so here I am, just finished Chapter 1 of Capital (alongside David Harvey’s A Companion to Marx’s Capital, which I’d be lost without, and a pal who also decided to dive in at roughly the same time with whom I’m doing a wee reading ‘group’ with).

Not only do I feel my understanding of the world has deepened in only 100 pages, but I already understand why that lesson in Modern Studies has blinkered me all this time. I’m not saying one book (or even one chapter) has flipped my worldview on its head (especially as I already agreed with the inherited principle of the book), but instead that the very act of diving into something which feels difficult and alien and outside my expertise; and perhaps scary and confronting too…feels really bloody good.

I’m writing this essay as I’ve felt reading from others going through similar journeys to be immeasurably helpful - in helping me come to terms with central ideas of mine crashing down in front of me. Maybe it’ll do the same for one or more of you.

~

There’s one more thing I’ve nicked from my partner beyond his copy of Capital, and it’s his astute summary of what I’m trying to say here:

“You feel you agree with some social and political principles, but you’re worried you’ve culturally inherited those ideas, and are very aware that you haven’t done the work. You’ve listened to people who have done the work but you’ve taken in their interpretation. So you need to grasp what your foundational beliefs really are, and to do this, you have to do the work for yourself. You have to work out which of those beliefs actually match the words you’re giving to them, and whether you’re dismissing ideas incorrectly, you need to learn what those beliefs and ideas are at their core and where they’ve come from.”

I don’t know if that will speak to you - now, or ever - but if it does, I hope you’ll get in touch with your favourite independent bookshop right now and order yourself some Marx (or whatever your version of Capital is) and also embark on this perilous but ultimately so fulfilling journey of beginning to really understand what you think about the world.


📌 Tip Reel 📌

Currently reading (beyond Marx…):

I started watching the Epstein documentary on Netflix last night - Filthy Rich - so far so horrific (I’m midway through episode 2), but ‘enjoying’ it all the same.

Brilliant piece from Brian Merchant over one OneZero, where he reads works “from the Bible to ‘Epidemics and Society’ to ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism’ to help predict our post-pandemic future”.

Afropean by Johnny Pitts won the annual Jhalak Prize for writers of colour this week. I’ve placed my order. It’s also been one of the books on the reading list for this great new book club on Instagram run by the wonderful Symeon Brown: @goodreadersclub - this Sunday they’re discussing An American Marriage. It’s one of the few online book clubs that has really excited me.

This essay by Madeleine Dunne on the cost of personal writing is fab and I think you should give it a read.


🕯 What I’m Up To 🕯

Science Disrupt podcast

I’m really proud of our latest episode (iTunes / Spotify), which is us laying down a bit of an explanation of what we mean when we talk about ‘disrupting science’ and why we need and want to be much more honest, open, upfront and realistic about what’s happening in tech and science. (I have a mini rant about VCs and the recent Clubhouse deal). Next week, we’re publishing our interview with Sabine Hossenfelder, which I’m SO excited for you guys to hear!

Smoke & Mirrors

Next event I’m speaking about my book Smoke & Mirrors will be at CogX at 5.30-6pm on the 9th June - I’m being interviewed by Matt Clifford of Entrepreneur First about hype in the cutting edge startup world. I’m also interviewing a personal hero of mine (he is part of the reason I ended up studying maths at uni…) Marcus du Sautoy, about creativity and intelligence earlier the same day (10am).

-> I have a bunch of free passes to the whole festival if you want to join - use code: SPCXSFP100

Book Writing YouTube Series

I was interviewed by Anne-Laure Le Cunff about my book writing process - we totally nerd out about post-it notes, online tools and Scrivener (complete with screen sharing!) You can watch it now if you fancy peeking into the actual ins and outs of gathering research, knowledge and interviews and then somehow turning that all into a book..! (My YouTube channel has a few videos on book writing, including how I got my agent / publisher etc, which you can find here).

Currently Working On

Currently working on a piece to do with the ‘economy of experts’ in terms of gurus, public intellectuals, academics, advisors, consultants…and what the internet has done for credibility, ‘expertise’ and trust.


Find me elsewhere on TwitterFacebookLinkedInGoodreadsInstagramMedium, or through my website.

Until next time,
Gemma 🚀


Gemma Milne is a science & tech writer, author of ‘Smoke & Mirrors: How Hype Obscures the Future and How to See Past It’, and is co-host of the Science Disrupt podcast.

Do Yer Duty

Books, sudoku, duty ~ Brain Reel #29

Hey pals,

It’s been a hot minute since we last spoke! Turns out launching a book in lockdown is no less time-consuming than doing it in ‘the real world’… But Smoke & Mirrors is out now, and it feels really bloody good.

(If you haven’t yet got your copy of Smoke & Mirrors, or want to get one as a gift, I highly recommend Lighthouse Books in Edinburgh to buy it from online!)

I’ve been having a think about how to make this newsletter both as interesting as possible for you lot as well as slightly more manageable on my end, and I’ve landed on starting it with a wee essay, followed by my recommendations and updates. Let me know if you prefer this or the previous format, or if you just want to say hi, by hitting reply :)

On with the reel!


Do Yer Duty

Writing about science can feel like both an urgent calling and an indulgent hobby.

You get to tell stories about the unknown, and share crucial information about how our world works, and most people see you as the translator of that thing they didn’t understand in school or the wistful clever clogs in the separate section of the newspaper.

I’m not a news reporter, I’m not an investigative journalist, I’m not a staffer – my job isn’t usually to break new information to the public and I don’t routinely write about viruses or public health.

But every day I wake up and wonder what exactly my duty is in this indescribable time that we’re living in.

‘DO YER DUTY’.

It’s a phrase that’s been carved into my mind, ever since my stonemason dad brought home the big sandstone plaque with those very words he’d hand-chiselled in, and turned what was a first draft piece for a client into a fancy step in amongst a set in our back garden.

I’ve walked on those words for years at home, and pondered what they meant for the kings, queens, knights and soldiers before me. I’d never really thought that ‘duty’ would figure much in my 21st century liberal freelance life – until now.

I feel, like I’m sure so many of us do too right now, a sense of duty to contribute more than what I currently am. Maybe it’s the battle narratives we’re hearing, maybe it’s the talk of heroism of those front-line workers, but the urge to do something drastic, switch focus and ‘jump in’ is there in droves.

Is my duty, with my writing skills, my academic contacts and my ability to dive into research papers not entirely flabbergasted by their contents, to join the ‘ranks’ of the science beat reporters? To help get the often-inaccessible information out to the masses at a time so many are hungry for answers?

Perhaps it’s to hold those in power to account – questioning the official information being broadcast to the public, diving into the government plans to seek out problematic burials, calling out those with influence and authority to do better by society?

Maybe it’s to help get the important messages out, to campaign and debunk and explain – taking a more educator role with my communication background and Twitter followers in tow?

Or, is my duty just to stay home, stay quiet, let those in those jobs already do their thing, whilst I stick to my commentary, my non-public-health focus, my ‘outsider’ status?

The urge to jump in and do something is maybe exactly the problem right now, though. Perhaps the strong desire so many of us have to fix things and get answers and know exactly what’s what is, ironically, hindering progress.

Science, technology and ‘working out how the world works’ are not endeavours with simple answers. The systems which power our societies – health, energy, food, education, transport – they are interconnected, interdependent and highly complex. This has always been a tricky thing to communicate though, and some parts of the media is rightly criticised for its crude headlines, lack of presented nuance and absolutist statements.

Now, with these systems crumbling before us, their moving parts (or lack thereof recently) are laid out for all to see. Like a machine that has been whizzing so fast you can't see the bits in motion, now exposed – with each and every ream of sticky tape holding it together, every cog slightly too big and slightly too small, the amount of oil which has been used to keep it running, the people behind the scenes whose blood, sweat, and tears fuels it...all on show.

As the pandemic continues, and as people shift towards the new-normal, more space arises for unpicking what exactly has happened, what it exposes about our world, and what's next in terms of repairing (and redesigning) society. The fragility of systems like the airline industry and the restaurant sector have been made clear to those on the outside; the interconnectedness of systems such as health, immigration and schools is now plain for all to see; and the fact that our society's systems break when society doesn't engage in them is something most people had never previously considered, but now personally understand. It's unfortunate that it's under harsh circumstances that the reality of how our world works is suddenly made so clear, but if we're to build a better world off the back of the pandemic - a world which is better protected from more international disasters and threats we'll undoubtedly continue to face in the years to come; a world which is closer to the utopian ideals humanity has dreamed of for eons - then right now is the opportunity to dive into those systems, continue to explore how they power our world, and give foundations and frameworks for those trying to build them better.

Jumping into quick answers, definite statements and narratives lacking in this crucial nuance is causing confusion, frustration and diminishing trust in government, the media, and science itself.

It’s my duty, then, to hold back. To sit in the uncertainty. To strive to find nuance in our complex world. And to not make any rash decisions under the guise of trying to fix what cannot be with a simple switch in personal focus.

Our duty right now isn’t disengagement, but considered thought. Our duty is to hold back ill-informed demands, to pick apart the information presented as logically as possible, and to get to grips better with the complex world we live in. Now more than ever should we understand the power of collective action and thought – and we should remember that moving forward.

The world has always needed more nuance; our duty now right now is to take that personally.


📌 Tip Reel 📌

Currently reading:

This video of a dude solving a Sudoku - honestly! - is bloody glorious, and I highly recommend getting a cup of tea and taking a 25 minute break to watch it.

Really enjoyed the latest edition of Popular Information (a brilliant newsletter) on ‘The Rise of the Quacks’ - on pseudoscience and politics.

I loved (/was appalled at) this article from Imogen West-Knights on Why British Prisons Aren’t Working.

The most beautiful (but heartbreaking) 8 minutes of audio come from Anton Ferrie on the Anthems podcast, and I *urge* you to give it a listen. It’s stunning.


🕯 What I’m Up To 🕯

We’ve been busy relaunching the Science Disrupt podcast, and our 2 latest episodes are all about Abolishing Silicon Valley, with Wendy Liu, and Science Communication in the Age of Coronavirus. We’ve got some awesome guests coming up including Mark O’Connell, Sabine Hossenfelder and Rutger Bregman!

I’ve been interviewed on lots of wonderful podcasts about Smoke & Mirrors, here are a few of my favourites (and how they skew most):

I’m now working on my second book - my agent has my first draft of the sample chapter and the chapter outlines, I’m hoping we’ll go out to publishers to try to sell it in the next few weeks..! (I’ve been sharing more on this on my Instagram stories if you want to follow along)

Currently working on a piece on VC hype culture / cult of the entrepreneur and what that means in terms of value creation in Silicon Valley…


Find me elsewhere on TwitterFacebookLinkedInGoodreadsInstagramMedium, or through my website.

Until next time,
Gemma 🚀


Gemma Milne is a science & tech writer, author of ‘Smoke & Mirrors: How Hype Obscures the Future and How to See Past It’, and is co-host of the Science Disrupt podcast.

Brain Reel #28

Coronavirus crooks | Join my street team! | Running: be fast or first?

Hey gang,

What a strange world we’re living in right now, eh?

I’ve been struggling to write over the last few weeks, for various reasons beyond, you know, the global pandemic, but I’ve been missing writing my wee newsletter.

So in an effort to get back on track and get the words flowing once more, I’m currently doing an online writing retreat with Urban Writers’ Retreat (it’s free and on again tomorrow, get involved!) and one of the things I told all the folk on the very active accountability Facebook group is that I’d write my newsletter today – so here goes…


🔬 Science Reel 🔬

What is there to talk about beyond Covid-19 in the science section my pals? I must admit, it’s quite a strange time to be a science writer – I’m struck by a feeling of duty to write about the virus, but I’m not an epidemiology or virus expert, and public health isn’t usually my beat, so I’m also struck with a sense of ‘how on Earth do we navigate all this information?!’ much like most people.

One thing I do keep an eye on though is the world of science startups, and the process of taking what’s in the lab out into the market. It means I receive a lot of press releases from small businesses in the biotech sector. One caught my eye the other day – a startup which analyses your DNA, much like 23andme, offering a Covid-19 test for about £120 (and proudly releasing that info to journalists to hopefully help market it for them). You order one, it’s delivered to your door, you do the test at home, post back, and get your results online after a few days.

I couldn’t work out if this was blatant conning of the wealthy – offering a test that wasn’t accepted as good enough by Public Health England to be offered by the NHS – or blatant proof that we do have capacity and capability for more testing, and that which is safely done at home, but private companies are taking up space in the analysis labs. Turns out it’s a bit of both.

A few days later, I saw this awesome – if slightly depressing – piece in the New York Times about the British businesses making a dime off Covid-19 testing.

I guess one thing we can all do is keep an eye on who is doing what over the next few months, and adjust our actions, spending and votes accordingly. The pandemic will eventually start to ease – we must ensure a better, fairer world comes out the other side.


📖 Book Reel 📖

So my very first book, Smoke & Mirrors, comes out in less than 4 weeks! April 23rd 2020 doesn’t feel so far away any more…

It was an exciting day yesterday as I received my very first author copies! Pretty emotional seeing it in print, to say the least…

Image may contain: Gemma Milne, standing and indoor

Of course, I’m pretty gutted about all the events I had booked around the launch being cancelled but I’m still extremely excited to get my words out into the world (and y’know bigger things and all that).

I’ll be gathering as many online events and podcasts and livestreams into a ‘digital book tour’ of sorts, starting with the few I have down at the bottom of this newsletter!

I’ve had a lot of lovely people ask how they can help get ‘Smoke & Mirrors’ out into the world, so I’ve decided to create what the cool kids in the book industry call a ‘street team’.

It’s essentially a group of lovely kind folk who want to help boost the book when it comes out – whether that’s a simple sharing of a tweet or a LinkedIn post on launch day, or reviewing the book on Goodreads or Amazon, or connecting me up with your pals with podcasts, YouTube channels or another kind of audience who might like the book, or seeing if your company fancies doing an (online) event with me around its themes. As Tesco has reminded us for years, every little helps!

I’ve created a wee Typeform (only 8 questions!) which I’d be so grateful if you could fill in if you fancy giving Smoke & Mirrors a wee helping hand, and over the next few weeks, I’ll share some sample social posts and a few other bits and bobs to make it easy to give Smoke & Mirrors a wee boost - I know you’re all super busy!

Join the Street Team!

Pre-order links for ‘SMOKE & MIRRORS: How Hype Obscures the Future and How to See Past It’, released April 23rd 2020: Amazon / Foyles / Waterstones / Blackwells / Wordery / Book Depository

Or if you prefer a big fancy green button:

Pre-order and feel great about life!


🧐 Musing Reel 🧐

I watched this interesting Wall Street Journal video about the Nike Vaporfly controversy. It’s a great wee video so I recommend giving it a whirl, but in short, Nike created this trainer which might be giving those who wear it an unfair advantage, due to the dimensions and material of the sole (seemingly it’s like running on a cloud!)

The video introduced to me the idea of 'mechanical doping' - doping not with drugs, but with the equipment you use in the sport; in this case, the shoes you run in.

It brought up an interesting question around what competitive running is about: is it about getting the fastest times possible, or about competition between athletes? It is about being fast, or is it about being first?

If competitive running is about pushing our human bodies to their extremes to get the fastest time, then you could argue that the shoes are fine provided everyone can wear them - which, of course, they can. It’s the argument some make for allowing drug doping in sport: that it would be interesting to see how far and how fast we can go if everyone was put on steroids - they’d all be starting from the ‘same place’. (It sounds eerily similar to those who advocate for brain-computer interfaces, might I add..)

But then where do we stop with adding in other mechanical or chemical advantages? Are we just getting closer to putting athletes in cars and having them drive to the finish line? Where’s the fun in that?

We then start opening questions up about what is the maximum 'help' that athletes should be allowed if we really want to work out what counts as a 'best time' ever. I mean, athletes are really only competing with other athletes alive right now anyway - versus competitions in the past, we know more about nutrition, the tracks are better maintained, the coaching is getting better every year…heck we could start talking about wealthier athletes having access to more expertise so should there be a limit in how much can be spent each year on coaching?

Of course, running can be about competing with yourself, and the fastest times to beat, and it can also be about being the best on the day. So the other side of the coin is: ‘well what about strategy?’ - i.e. surely running isn’t just about being super fast, but by running intelligently: getting to the finish line first, the hare and the tortoise have taught us, isn’t just about speed. It shouldn’t be about the shoes you wear but how well you train and how cleverly you compete. But then, what else do we remove as ‘advantages’ to get it down to ensuring everyone is competing on strategy alone, fairly on the day?

Sport - much like many facets of life - can never truly be fair. But this wee example shows that sometimes it’s less about the technicalities of the advantage and more about the ultimate goal those involved consider most important. Maybe when we see things as unfair and can’t work out why others don’t, it’s because we’re only looking at them through the lens of our own goals - and maybe the way to fix things, or make them fairer through our own eyes, is to find ways to reorient the target for those with a different vantage point.


📌 Tip Reel 📌

I’m currently reading a few books and, so far, they are all incredible:

If you’re looking for an anchor to mark each day right now – I was feeling very out at sea as I’m into my fourth week at home now (started early due to being ill) – I highly recommend finding a movie series and watching a segment each night, one after the other. We’ve done the 8 Harry Potter movies twice now (16 days of glory!); pure escapism, something to mark the end of our workday each night, and gives a sense of progress. A wee thing, but something I’ve been finding very helpful.

This little Vox video on how they colourise old photos was fascinating.


📚 (Digital) Book Tour! 📚

23rd April: Ctrl Alt Delete Podcast with Emma Gannon (pre-recorded)

29th April: FUTURES podcast (live) - get tickets HERE

(Will keep adding to this over time… have lots still to announce but waiting on dates for a few things to be confirmed!)


Find me elsewhere on TwitterFacebookLinkedInGoodreadsInstagramMedium, or through my website.

Until next time,
Gemma 🚀


Gemma Milne is a Science & Tech Writer, has her very first book (about hype and idealism in science and tech) coming out April 23rd 2020, is co-host of the Science: Disrupt podcast, and loves a bit of public speaking.

Loading more posts…