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.


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.