Brain Reel #25

How to trust science, QUIVERING, long-term decisions in London

Happy New Year pals!

Normally by this point in January, I’m all set with my goals and to-dos and monthly plans and so on, but I’m still feeling very untethered. Not in a lost way, mind you, just a sort of floaty ‘what’s happening..?!’ kind of way.

So shout out to all you lot who are feeling guilty about not having done your 2020 plans or generally untethered despite the back-to-work structure - let’s keep floating for another few days, eh?

Here we go - first Brain Reel of 2020…


🔬 Science Reel 🔬

Last week, Nobel Prize winning chemist Professor Frances Arnold took to Twitter to post a brilliantly honest tweet:

Essentially, this means that she and the team behind a May 2019 paper she was involved in decided to retract the work - remove it from the journal it was published in - as there was data missing from a lab notebook and the work was not reproducible (able to be done again and tested by other scientists to confirm the results).

Scientists hardly ever publicly correct work, or admit to failure like this. This should be celebrated. Retractions of papers is normal considering science is built to be self-correcting - when someone notices something wrong, they report and, if the scientists and journal are honest individuals, the paper is retracted. It can be heart-breaking for scientists when this happens - as papers are currency in academia, and papers can take years to come into fruition - but science relies on this kind of behaviour to stay strong and trustworthy.

As Serena Nik-Zainal eloquently pointed out, BBC news covered this, and although the article itself in full is relatively fair, there are a few issues:

It got me thinking about what the best way is to talk about problematic areas of science. Society generally hears either the ‘whizz-bang isn’t science great’ stories of discoveries or rocket launches or whatever else, OR the stories of serious malpractice happening in problematic pharma companies. We rarely hear stories in between.

Science is not flawless. Science is not perfect. Actually, the point of science is to keep proving those before you ‘wrong’, in some sense, by building on knowledge and refining what we know. Science is not there to be this all-knowing deity…it’s there to question and test and explore and self-correct.

As a writer covering not the discoveries nor the ‘whizz-bang’ but more the ‘inside academia’ stories and the little-known companies spinning out of labs, I’m regularly faced with a bit of a dilemma. Do I tell these more complex stories which expose science for what it really is - fallible, complex, not without controversy - and do my best to not have it reduce trust in science overall for those who are faced with that ‘wait science is like WHAT?!’ surprise? Or do I not tell the story out of fear of not doing it well enough, in case I fuel bad actors (anti-vaccine campaigners, climate deniers and so on) who relish stories about how science is fallible, and amplify them for their own means?

I applaud Professor Arnold for being one of the good’uns, and putting science, knowledge and decency above personal career gains. We need more like her, to normalise science for the masses, and keep science honest, fair, and truly self-correcting.

It’s the only way to build trust - real, reflective-of-the-actual-goings-on trust - in the wonderful world of science.


📖 Book Reel 📖

So 2020 is book publishing year and GUYS I’M SO EXCITEDNERVOUSEXCITED!

This bit in between finishing the writing and editing and proofreading, and the book actually hitting bookshelves, is weird. I’m feeling very in-limbo, as there’s actually little I can do right now, as the finalfinalfinal proof is still at the type-setters (we went from it being all done and shiny and not too much changed from the original manuscript, to suddenly and quickly reordering three of the chapters right before Christmas 🙈) and so I can’t send it out to any journalists or people for reviews or podcast or TV bookers or whatever. I feel like I’m in a sort of perpetual planning-not-doing phase, when I was expecting by this point to be ALL HANDS ON DECK.

I’m also waiting for some endorsements to come in from a few people I sent it to before Christmas and LET ME TELL YOU PEOPLE, awaiting blurbs is not remotely a desirable position to be in. It consists of you obsessively checking your email / their social media to see if they’ve finished your book yet or are tweeting about other things that are not your book (and hence aren’t reading your godamn book! HOW DARE THEY? *ahem*)

That doesn’t mean this time is not busy for me - I’m now working on building up pennies so I can take time off over the launch and weeks following it, and of course there’s always something to be done (finding emails of folk to pitch extracts, spotting events I could present the book at, working out what the launch drinks looks like, emailing my poor publicist every 5 minutes with ‘Oh and what about THIS?!’ rambles) - but I guess I wanted to share that sort of treading water feeling I’m feeling right now.

(You guys asked about what writing a book is like! This bit is like this!)

A friend sent me this wonderful piece of writing by Caroline O’Donoghue called ‘A Prayer for Debut Authors’ (also a newsletter!) and it helped A LOT - with this bit perfectly encapsulating what I’m feeling right now:

“I have a certain amount of dread about 2020. My second adult novel, Scenes of a Graphic Nature, comes out in June, which means the first six months will be spent quivering like a whippet over who likes it, whether they like it enough, and for what reasons.”

So, yeah, I guess right now I’m quivering. Or treading water. Or both. But in amongst that is a fair amount of excitement and a big feeling of ‘raring to go’.

And so I’m holding onto that for, let’s be honest, probably only another week before I’m run off my feet once more.

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 button:

Pre-order and feel great about life!


🧐 Musing Reel 🧐

Lawrence and I are moving flat at the start of February and I can’t quite contain my excitement.

We’re doing the opposite of what a lot of people our age (28) seem to be doing right now - we’re moving further into London, away from the young-family-friendly areas, to be closer to the action.

I’ve never really felt like I’ve properly been living in London, and I think that’s most likely because I’ve either been living in a flat that feels like a post-uni flat (curtains falling off, nothing allowed to be put on the walls in case they mark, and all), a flat-share which has always felt like a temporary decision, or one that’s owned by an older mate.

Come to think of it, ever since I moved away from home at 18 to go to university, everywhere I’ve lived has felt temporary. At uni, each place was only for the 9-month term time; in summers, it was just for the summer; in London, it’s always been ‘when I have the money, I’ll get a proper place to live’.

And so it’s extremely exciting to - yes - squirrel away an even bigger portion of our income to have a 2-bed flat in the centre where I can realistically ask my friends to come round for dinner now I’ll have room for a dining table. It’s extremely exciting to - yes - forfeit saving to buy a house to feel like we’re living a city life for real, with our own wee space in the middle of it, with our things and our dreams and our careers. It’s extremely exciting to - yes - pay off someone else’s mortgage to commit to building a home with someone you love (because it’s unfurnished and you’re actually allowed to hang pictures on the wall this time) in the city you call home.

We’re moving flat next month, but it’s more than switching where we pay our rent, borrow square footage and park our belongings. I feel like I’m actually going to be living in London with my partner in crime, as real-life adults of sorts. And regardless of how long we stay there, it’s so nice to feel like I’m making longer-term plans.


📌 Tip Reel 📌

(If you’re not already following me on Instagram, I write some more fleshed-out book reviews on there if you fancy that kind of a thing, amongst the freelance / travel / London / gym photos - give them a wee look here)

Books I’m reading right now:

  • [About 60% of the way through and not yet really at the point of understanding what the fuss is about…will persevere…] A Death in the Family (Karl Ove Knausgaard writes about his life with painful honesty. He writes about his childhood and teenage years, his infatuation with rock music, his relationship with his loving yet almost invisible mother and his distant and unpredictable father, and his bewilderment and grief on his father’s death.)

  • [Bloody LOVING this; reading in preparation for ‘Underland’] The Old Ways (Following the tracks, holloways, drove-roads and sea paths that form part of a vast ancient network of routes criss-crossing the British Isles and beyond, Robert Macfarlane discovers a lost world - a landscape of the feet and the mind, of pilgrimage and ritual, of stories and ghosts; above all of the places and journeys which inspire and inhabit our imaginations.)

Awesome Netflix documentaries I’ve watched recently:

  • Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold - beautiful, intimate documentary of Didion’s life and the stories she wrote, as told by her nephew. Sublime.

  • Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator - one of those documentaries that are both unbelievable and thus captivating, whilst also being completely predictable and thus problematic at the same time (in a good way re the documentary; in a bad way re ‘the way the world is’).


➡️ Next Reel ➡️

  • 27 Jan: London, UK - Echo Chamber Club meetup ‘Believing the Truth’ (attendee)

  • 29 Jan: London, UK - Google’s Future of Insurance breakfast (moderator)

  • 1-5 Mar: Bratislava, Slovakia - Writing retreat with writer pal Phil!

  • 12-13 Mar: Paris, France - Hello Tomorrow (host / moderator)

  • [UNDECIDED] 14-19 Mar: Austin, Texas - SXSW (judge, possibly speaker) (I have a spare ticket (maybe 2) to this btw let me know if you fancy it / someone you know is keen…)

  • 21-25 Mar: Borneo - Biodiversity mission (press)

  • 26 Mar: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia - Thought For Food (host / moderator)


✍️ Work Reel ✍️


Find me elsewhere on TwitterFacebookLinkedInGoodreadsInstagramMedium, or through my website.

Until next time,
Gemma 🚀


Gemma Milne is a Science & Tech Writer, currently writing a book about hype and idealism in science and tech, is Co-Founder of Science: Disrupt, and loves a bit of public speaking.