mkohn2013BMarek Kohn writes about the implications of scientific thinking for ideas about human nature and society. His books include A Reason for Everything: Natural Selection and the English Imagination, Trust: Self-Interest and the Common Good, As We Know It: Coming to Terms with an Evolved Mind, The Race Gallery: The Return of Racial Science, and also Dope Girls: The Birth of the British Drug Underground. His most recent book, Turned Out Nice, explores how a changing climate could reshape national identities and relationships across the British Isles and Europe as a whole.

Twitter: @marekkohn

What is your feature about?

Are 'smart' drugs really smart, and what are the prospects for smarter ones? Rather than assuming that 'smart' drugs really do enhance cognition, and heading off into a discussion of whether their use is 'cheating' or not, I wanted to find out more about the science, and what cognition actually is.

What did you learn that you didn't expect?

That we have been in the Amphetamine Age of cognitive enhancement since the 1930s, when the effects of amphetamines on mental performance were first observed, and we look like we'll be remaining in it for the foreseeable future!

I also found my storyline taking an unexpected turn: I ended up writing about fairness after all, but posing a very different question to the usual one about whether students should be allowed to use drugs as aids to study.

Experiments by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir show how worrying about money degrades cognitive test scores, severely. Drugs that enhanced concentration or attention might counter those effects, helping enable poor people to lift themselves out of poverty. In the future, ethical questions about 'smart' drug use might shift from those about elite performance to those about equality and social justice.

Read Marek's feature on Mosaic from 29 July 2014

2 Comments


Alok Jha.  Passport photo. Photo: Linda NylindAlok Jha is the science correspondent for ITV News. Before that, he did the same job at the Guardian for 11 years and has also presented science programmes for BBC TV and radio. He is the author of two books: How to Live Forever and 34 Other Really Interesting Uses for Science and The Doomsday Handbook: 50 Ways to the End of the World (both published by Quercus in 2013). He is working on a third about the cultural and scientific history of water (to be published by Headline in 2015).

Twitter: @alokjha

What makes Harold Varmus an interesting subject for you?

Varmus has done so much in his working life – winning a Nobel, writing books, arguing for science in Congress and widely on the national stage – and he is still going strong. An hour in his company can't help but make you more informed about the world and more fascinated by the puzzles of human biology at the molecular level.

What struck you most from the interview?

How specifically detailed Varmus' knowledge of the cutting edge of cancer research is. Someone who has contributed as much as he has to science could be forgiven for taking a step back, but Varmus seems to like keeping his hands dirty with strategies, ideas, possible experiments and trials to beat cancer. He seems to have several different full-time jobs, yet still manages to find the time to indulge his deep interest in cycling and playing sports more than many of us with just one job do.

Read Alok's feature on Mosaic from 22 July 2014.

 

11 Comments

Carl_Zimmer_S8I0005Carl Zimmer is a columnist for the New York Times. He began his career at Discover, where he served as a senior editor from 1994 to 1998. Since then he has published a dozen books, including Parasite Rex and Evolution: Making Sense of Life, and he has written hundreds of articles for The New York Times and magazines including National Geographic, The Atlantic, and Scientific American. In 2003, he started a blog called The Loom, which is now hosted by National Geographic. He is, to his knowledge, the only writer after whom a species of tapeworm has been named.

Twitter: @carlzimmer

 

What is your feature about?

It’s about blood types, and why we have them.

What did you learn that you didn't expect?

I got interested in writing this feature simply to find out why we have blood types. Since scientists have known of their existence for over a century, I was sure that by now their purpose had been discovered. After all, blood types matter a lot to our health – insofar as a mismatched blood type can make a transfusion fatal. I was surprised to learn that, while there are some intriguing clues, no one can say for sure why we have blood types.

Read Carl's feature on Mosaic from 15 July 2014.

1 Comment

Online discussions are now a staple of any digital publication. ‘Below the line’ comments, Twitter, Facebook, Reddit – there are any number of places readers go to voice their thoughts and opinions.

We wrote in our Content Strategy that Mosaic would “aim to open up the storytelling process and involve our audience”. Rather than a purely publish/broadcast relationship, our thinking was to try to involve our audience more, both in generating ideas for future stories and in further discussions of the issues raised by current stories. And over the first few months of Mosaic’s life, we’ve done a few experiments.

Comments

One of the earliest decisions we faced was whether to have comments under our stories or not.

There are many pros and cons, but the main ones were obvious. On the one hand, it’s nice to have an obvious place directly underneath an article where readers can write what they think and discuss the topic there and then. On the other hand, online comments are notoriously either empty fields of tumbleweed or full of trolls and flame wars, requiring major resource to moderate.

Having looked at many other publisher and website models, we decided against comments, for 2 main reasons:

1) Aesthetically, the page is cleaner, friendlier and shorter (bearing in mind our articles are already quite long) without multiple comments underneath.

2) Our aim is to “share our content as freely and widely as possible” and reach new audiences wherever they may be, in the places they already go (rather than force them to visit our site necessarily), it seems churlish to force them to come to our site for their discussions (an environment that may be unfamiliar and uncomfortable sharing on). Far better that those discussions take place where they already feel comfortable talking, be it another website, community, or their own social media.

Four months in, I personally think this has been justified. Some of the richest discussions around our articles have taken place not on our platforms, but in places that already have a large and engaged audience, often around on a particular subjects. Jezebel’s republish of Rose George’s Blood Speaks has so far garnered 655 comments and a rich discussion of menstruation and taboo. We also saw similar on Australian site Mamamia. Similarly, Gizmodo – one of the major publishers to have taken up our Creative Commons republish license enthusiastically – has seen wide ranging discussions over subjects like the next-generation female condom. And in terms of reaching other, new audiences, Hacker News readers seem to like our stories, prompting discussions of everything from ageing to electric brain stimulation and Brazilian gyms.

We also publish all our stories in a collection on Medium, which allows readers to annotate any part of the story with a note, something several readers have taken advantage of (this one on our Mind Readers story for instance, shares a relevant link to further the discussion).

Reddit

We wanted to be more pro-active with discussions and debates around our stories and the issues they raise. So we made a conscious effort to think where else, besides comments, people might be interested in talking.

Reddit is one of the biggest communities on the Internet and famous for its AMA (Ask Me Anything) Q&As with just about anyone who wants to do one, be it a Hollywood celebrity or a local nurse. Reddit also has an audience with a strong interest in science, with their Science subreddit one of the most popular on the site.

Working with their moderators, we’ve thus far featured in 3 Reddit AMAs related to our stories, putting the scientists and authors directly involved in the story in contact with the Reddit readers. We’ve been pleasantly surprised with how much the Reddit readers and the scientists themselves have taken to the experience.

Social media

Of course, readers don’t need comments or a discussion page to voice their opinions.

Many of Team Mosaic, as well as our writers, are avid tweeters, and the nature of the quick messaging service make it perfect for discussions and Q&As. We’ve done a number of them so far, ranging from Q&As with the authors – this one with Rose George on her experience reporting in Bangladesh and Nepal for instance – to wider crowd-sourced information about the dangers of cycling in your city and tips from runners for marathons. We also partnered with non-profit #MHchat to host a moving and enlightening debate on the nature of mental health and stigma during Mental Health Awareness Week, based around our Last Chance Saloon series. It helps when authors like Rose and Hayley Birch are familiar and comfortable with the quickfire nature of Twitter. And the #MHchat experience showed us how candid and open people are willing to be when the barrier to entering the discussion is low but the quality of debate is high.

We’ve had mixed success with Facebook. On the one hand, discussion around the meaning of ‘normal’ (linked to our film AbNormal) garnered a number of comments, but not as wide a discussion as we’d hoped (perhaps the question was too abstract?). On the other hand, Facebook was a crucial part of our #BigQuestions launch campaign, with a photo album of images forming the voting mechanism for the campaign. This garnered some very rich discussion under each one, 200,000+ views  and over 1000 votes through likes, shares and comments. Facebook definitely has the largest number of users of any of the social networks we use and we’ll be thinking carefully about how to best deploy discussions on here in future.

Google Hangout on Air

One of Google+’s most useful features is the ‘Hangout’ – essentially a group video chat, which you can also choose to broadcast publicly via YouTube. We’ve seen some excellent uses of this in recent years and have been keen to see if we could use these ourselves.

Our first experiment took place back in April. The culmination of our #BigQuestions launch campaign, we organised a panel discussion on the most popular question – Is sexuality genetic? – between a group of biologists, psychiatrists, campaigners and journalists, connecting from around the country. Mosaic readers were also invited to pose questions directly via a chat panel on the Google+ event page itself. 

The whole thing was broadcast live on our Google+ page and YouTube channel, with the video automatically uploaded to our YouTube channel for posterity. We learned a lot from the experience – not least the level of planning and resources needed for a larger-scale broadcast – and hope to do more of these, probably on a smaller-scale, involving our writers and their subjects.

The Future

What else might we do? We had ideas of trying out Branch for one. We’d also like to follow in the footsteps of our friends at MATTER, who have in the past crowdsourced ideas for new stories based on what an editorial board drawn from their audience voted for. Whether this is something our readers would want to take part in, we’d like to find out.

So watch this space. And as ever, if you have any feedback or ideas, we’d love to hear them. mosaic@wellcome.ac.uk, tweet us @mosaicscience or comment - this blog does have them.

8 Comments

Srinath PerurSrinath Perur finished his doctoral work in computer science and, for a change, began a column that answered children’s questions on science. He found himself doing more research than ever to fend off queries about why dogs chase cars and whether there is such a thing as a consequence-free post-meal headstand. He now writes on a variety of subjects, often related to travel and science.

He is the author of If It’s Monday It Must Be Madurai, a book about travelling with groups. He lives in Bangalore.

Twitter: @sperur

What is your feature about?

It's about Stephen Sumner, who's been cycling around Cambodia teaching fellow amputees how to use mirrors to relieve their phantom limb pain. It's also about looking at the not-quite-settled science in mirror therapy against the backdrop of a place where it could be particularly useful -- Cambodia has an unusually high number of amputees in the aftermath of prolonged conflict. 

What did you learn that you didn't expect?

I wasn't expecting to return from reporting a neuroscience story with a deeper sense of the pointlessness of war. Also, to my mortification, I learnt that a one-legged cyclist is easily able to outpace me. 

Read Srinath’s feature on Mosaic, publishing 8 July 2014.

14 Comments

Overwhelmed by the sheer amount of stuff on the Internet? Often find yourself with 10+ tabs open on your browser? These days many of us have too much to read, which is a challenge for those who like to read long-form content (and those who publish it too).

Thankfully, there is a solution: read later services.

The idea is simple: at the click of a button you can save the whole text (and often the pictures too) from a webpage to read at another time at your leisure. These services sync with apps on your smartphone or tablet, or even your Kindle or other e-reader, so you always have something you want to read at your fingertips - perfect for those idle moments waiting in a queue or riding the bus or train. Even subway reading is possible, since the apps keep the latest articles on your device for offline use. Best of all: most of these services are free.

When I first discovered these a few years ago, they literally changed my life. I always have my phone on me, so I always have something interesting that I want to read with me at all times. The number of articles I was able to consume – particularly long-form – went up substantially (though you could argue that I’ve swapped multiple open tabs for lots of saved articles I may never read….). I also like the clean, ad-free reading experience these services offer – a change from the busy clutter of many webpages.

Here follows a quick guide to the services available (Disclaimer: Mosaic does not endorse any product or service. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.) 

Instapaper

The first read later service I used and one of the most established. Originally created by Marco Arment, one of the founders of Tumblr, Instapaper does what it says on the tin: “Save anything, read anywhere” with a simple and clean interface and design.

You can choose to read either through scrolling or swipe-pagination, what font and what size it displays in, and even whether you read with a black or white background (black being better for device batteries). There’s even a ‘night version’ mode that will adjust the brightness at sunset to go easy on your eyes.

Elsewhere, you can archive items you’ve read (searchable), ‘favourite’ articles, and also link that to your social media services to tweet or Facebook your friends and followers. It offers send-to-Kindle integration and has a new ‘highlights’ feature, allowing you to save quotes and other bits from articles. There’s also a feature that will surface feature articles from your saves, as well integrating with friends who also use Instapaper so you can see what they’re reading too. Particularly nice is the Twitter integration – you can save an article right from the Twitter app to Instapaper and it will also have that person’s tweet in the save (useful if you forget why you saved it in the first place!).

For a fee you can also upgrade to a ‘Pro’ version with a full-text search function for your archive and no ads among other things.

Pocket

Originally grown out of a simple browser extension (literally called ‘Read it later’), this is possibly the leader in read later services at the moment and my current favourite.

Much like Instapaper, with all the same functions but in some ways slicker. In its web and app versions it looks much more colourful and magazine-like than Instapaper’s simple black-and-white design. In my experience, I’ve also found it better at saving the images alongside articles too.

Usage-wise, it’s a joy, with a great search function right out of the box. Pocket has the same ‘features’ highlighting function as Instapaper, but puts that at the top of the app, sorted into automatically tagged categories like ‘Long Reads’, ‘Quick reads’ and ‘Best of’ – useful for surfacing items that you’d saved a while ago but never got around to reading. You can also create your own tags. Like Instapaper, it recognises video and image-led articles and tags them in an easy-to-find separate category. Like Instapaper, should you choose to hook up your Pocket account to your friends’ you can see what people have chosen to share to you, as well as what they’re reading. And you can send articles directly from the Twitter app too.

A pro version is available, which gives you a more powerful search function (search by topics or author for instance) as well as a permanent library – it’ll keep the full save of your archive so you can access anytime, even if that article later gets deleted from the web (most services lose that when you archive it from your list).

Readability

A service started with the aim of cleaning up the web-reading experience, read later seems to have developed as a bonus benefit. As such, it grew largely out of its browser extension for Firefox – click the button and it’ll display the text of your webpage without the ad and side-box junk and a more readable font.

You don’t need to install an app to use it, since the Readability website is fully mobile-responsive. But app-wise the standard apps for Apple and Android devices are available, just like Instapaper and Pocket and with much the same functionality. You can send articles to your Readability account via email and there’s integration with popular browsing app Flipboard if that’s your thing. It also has a partnership to highlight the best long-reads from the curators of Longform.org as well as a nice ‘Top Reads’ newspaper-like section that highlights the most popular articles people are saving at the time.

Evernote

Considered more as a note-taking/self-organisation tool, if you think of Evernote as a pinboard/scrapbook for ideas and thoughts, it makes sense that one of its major features is the ability to ‘clip’ articles from around the web. This saves the text of the article to your Evernote account, which you can synch to read offline. Not as flash or as optimised for reading as the other services, it still works well and is very useful if you also want to tag and save articles for project research purposes.

Others

Thanks to the free Kindle apps for smartphones and tablets, anyone with a smartphone or tablet can take advantage of Amazon’s ‘Send to Kindle’ service, not just Kindle owners. It’s pretty straightforward – you can install an extension to your browser to automatically send any article (or indeed document) straight to your Kindle account (which if you have it set up, will automatically synch with your Kindle). Not so good for video or image heavy pages of course.

Apple devices also all come with ‘Reading list’ built into the Safari browser. This takes advantage of Apples iCloud service to store your articles in the web. It does sync with your devices, but obviously is only of use if you have an iPhone or iPad.

For more on these services, Mashable has a nice guide to Read-it-later apps.

What’s your experience with read later services? Do let us know in the comments.

Disclaimer: Mosaic does not endorse any product or service. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own. 

2 Comments

Jo MarchantJo Marchant is a science journalist with a PhD in genetics. She has worked as an editor at New Scientist and at Nature and has written on topics from the future of genetic engineering to underwater archaeology.

Jo is the author of Decoding the Heavens: Solving the mystery of the world’s first computer (2009) and The Shadow King: The bizarre afterlife of King Tut’s mummy (2013), which was described by Literary Review as "a thrilling account [that] shows our human failings, most notably greed and pride". Her third book, Heal Thyself: The science of thinking yourself better, will be published by Canongate in 2015.

Twitter: @jomarchant

What is your feature about?

It is about how a Nobel-prize winning biochemist came to discover that the Eastern spiritual practice of meditation might slow cellular aging and lengthen life.

What did you learn that you didn't expect?

I didn't expect how beautifully a state of mind (perceived stress) would correlate with the molecular state of our cells. I was intrigued to hear that Nobel laureate Elizabeth Blackburn has been inducted as a "medicine Buddha" by the Dalai Lama. And as a mother, I was surprised to hear how the effects of stress during pregnancy are passed onto the next generation. The idea that my thoughts and feelings might physically alter the DNA of my unborn child - that blew my mind.

Read Jo’s feature on Mosaic, publishing 1 July 2014.

1 Comment

Our regular round-up of stories and films that have stood out for us in some way. This month, we were particularly thinking about interviews and how to represent interviewees in features.

Buzzfeed’s Jonah Peretti Goes Long (Matter)

Medium, the platform on which this Q&A with the founder of Buzzfeed is published, says it takes 91 minutes to read. It’s a bit of an insider’s piece – interviewer and interviewee are well known to each other and there is a lot of assumed knowledge about Peretti and his ventures – but it certainly made us think about how we read online. We all found that we skipped or skimmed through some sections: does that mean it could have been shorter? Or just that we were given the chance to pick and choose what we were most interested in?

‘So that represented my own little rebellion’ (Harvard Gazette)

Another Q&A, much shorter and more focused on giving a sense of the character of the interviewee, Stephen Greenblatt, a Harvard academic. It shows how a conversational approach can let the subject reveal personal insights about their motivations and inspirations.

The Defeated (Granta, £)

A compelling story of racial tension in South Africa. What makes this piece stand out is that the writer was thorough not only in his original reporting of a murder 15 years ago, but also, looking back, in his description of his reporting process at the time. He has stayed in touch with the people involved and gives the reader a sense of changing perspectives in the affected communities over that time.

Letters From an Arsonist (Washington City Paper)

A detailed account of the life and fires of a pyromaniac. Arsonist Thomas Sweatt is serving two life sentences plus 136 years for his crimes, which meant this article had to be based on a year or more of regular written correspondence between him and the reporter. Including excerpts from Sweatt’s letters puts his voice in the piece in a relatively unmediated way. The prolonged focus on the arsonist contrasts with the experience of the victims’ relatives whom we meet at the end of the piece.

Roger Graef’s Manifesto (Sheffield Doc/Fest)

Roger Graef has 50 years’ experience of making documentaries, so we take his advice seriously. This ‘manifesto’, written to mark his lifetime achievement award at this year’s Sheffield Doc/Fest, reminds us to think hard about what we create and why. Most of what he says is as relative to written features as it is to films.

The Perfect Stride (New Yorker)

There are quite a few runners in our team, so this feature about Alberto Salazar – long-distance runner and trainer – appealed to them in particular. A relatively simple structure reveals Salazar’s backstory in the context of another runner he is now training. The story called for a fair amount of scientific information about biomechanics, which we thought was incorporated smoothly and effectively.

(If you’re looking for more running stories, try ours)

My Travels with the Curse of Maracanã (New York Times)

This interactive animation / comic strip is about an infamous defeat that still looms over Brazilian football 64 years later. Not particularly in-depth, perhaps, but it merits spending some time on it. It’s all wrapped up in a narrative about going to Brazil looking for the soul of soccer, which is certainly topical but seemed a little bit forced. However, the style of the images (especially with the sound on!) more than made up for it.

How mistakes can save lives (New Statesman)

A really impressive piece of writing that follows the quest of an airline pilot to bring lessons from aviation safety to medical practices. His mission is motivated by a tragic personal story which unfolds as we discover that mistakes are common to all careers, but attitudes and responses to them can be very different. A great example of a story that follows a central character while making a much broader point about life.

What stories have caught your eye recently? Do share in the comments.

2 Comments

Barry J GibbBarry J Gibb's odd career began as a molecular biologist and neuroscientist but he succumbed to creative urges and started freelancing as a hybrid filmmaker and writer. After several documentaries for Channel 4 (Life After Coma) and the BIMA Award-winning 'Routes', he became the Wellcome Trust's Science Multimedia Producer. In 2011, his 30 minute film Until won the Imagine Science Film Festival's Nature People's Choice Award. His book, The Rough Guide to the Brain, is now in its second edition. 

Twitter: @barryjamesgibb

What is your film about?

The germ of the film originated in something that’s always fascinated me –when you walk into a pharmacy, it’s brimming with an incomprehensible variety of drugs. We all intuitively know that these pills originate somewhere within ‘the pharmaceutical industry’ - but this film attempts to explore precisely what that means. Who are the people working to create new medicines and how exactly do they go about the seemingly abstract task of ‘finding a treatment for lower back pain’ or ‘neuropathic foot pain’?

Rather than take a didactic, narrated approach to the film, I decided to invite a person with no former scientific training to be our eyes and ears; the wonderful Colin Froy, a retired policeman. His genuine curiosity and sense of discovery throughout the film lends it a wonderful freshness and authenticity as he peeks behind the pharmaceutical curtain, meeting and interviewing the scientists responsible for trying to eradicate his, and others, pain.

What did you learn that you didn't expect?

The cost of creating any new medicine is astronomical. Big pharma can be a bit of an easy target – it’s easy to imagine this cut throat, cloak and dagger world of greed and competition in which members of society become nothing more than profit-generating end users. However, in The Pain Detective, we discover a highly collaborative research community, strongly motivated by the desire to help improve health and diminish suffering.

Their need for cash is the result of this being a business in which the process of thinking up, designing and modeling a new candidate drug, followed by the testing and clinical trials required costs around one billion dollars. Imagine that the next time you’re in a pharmacy.

Watch The Pain Detective on Mosaic, premiering 24 June 2014.

1 Comment

Our Editorial Advisory Group helps us find and develop stories. They act as a sounding board for story ideas we've got, suggest ideas themselves, people who might have stories to tell or who might be good to write stories on particular topics, and advise on different angles to stories.

The Group includes people from the Wellcome Trust and from other organisations, with a variety of backgrounds, professions and expertise in science, medicine, history, culture, arts, broadcasting and new and old media.

  • Antonia Senior, journalist and writer
  • Claudia Hammond, broadcaster, writer and psychology lecturer
  • Dan O’Connor, Head of Medical Humanities, Wellcome Trust
  • Helen McShane, Professor of Vaccinology, University of Oxford
  • Jeff Barrett, Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute
  • Joanna Geary, Head of News Partnerships, Twitter UK
  • John Williams, Head of Clinical Activities/Neuroscience & Mental Health, Wellcome Trust
  • Kay Davies, Dr Lee's Professor of Anatomy at Oxford University and Deputy Chair of the Wellcome Trust.
  • Lisa Jamieson, Head of Engaging Science, Wellcome Trust
  • Nancy Lee, Senior Policy Advisor, Wellcome Trust
  • Richard Barnett, writer, historian of medical science
  • Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs, Science Museum Group
  • Shamita Sharmacharja, Curator, Wellcome Collection
  • Ted Bianco, Director of Innovations, Wellcome Trust

7 Comments

Sujata GuptaWhether discussing the cannibalistic ways of mantis shrimp or shaking the sticky foot of a male African clawed frog, Sujata reports on the strange world of science. She is particularly fond of writing about anything that involves science and food.

Her work has appeared online and in print in The New Yorker, New Scientist, Nature, High Country News, Scientific American, Wired, Psychology Today, ScienceNOW, Earth Magazine, PNAS and several other publications.

Twitter: @sujatagupta

What is your feature about?

About a year ago, I faced a seemingly straightforward dilemma. I am mostly vegetarian but my husband is not. When we had our son, now 2, we decided that he should be allowed to decide for himself whether or not to eat meat. My only caveat was that we buy high-quality, humanely raised meat. We live in Vermont so finding free-range animals raised without antibiotics and plenty of space to roam isn’t hard. But buying meat like that is also really expensive. I felt uncomfortable with the idea that only the richest people could afford so-called “humane” meat. Were there any alternatives?

As I poked around, I soon learned that a lot of researchers and farmers have been asking the same question. But they were coming at the issue from a broader perspective. As they saw it and as the numbers bear out, the population is growing larger and richer, which leads to more meat consumption. Soon, given our production capabilities, we will not be able to meet this growing demand. In my opinion, it would be great if we could reduce demand, but as that isn’t happening, there’s a movement afoot to figure out how to intensify meat production while still respecting an animal’s welfare. Is it possible, in other words, to create a humane factory farm?

I wound up focusing on pigs for a lot of reasons, but mostly because they are so intelligent. That doesn’t mean that I think dumber animals deserve to be treated badly! I just felt that pigs really captured the central tension of the story because they have some awareness of their predicament.

What did you learn that you didn't expect?

I went into this story assuming that we needed to make farm animals more wild. We’d crammed them into cages and then domesticated them to such a degree that they produce more milk than is healthy or gain too much weight for their bodies to support. But pretty quickly, I realised that I had it backwards: We needed to domesticate animals further to improve their lives on a factory farm.

For instance, right now, when we pack animals into small space, we have to cut off tails, beaks, and teeth to prevent injuries from fighting. That fighting is perfectly “natural” even if it doesn’t’ happen a lot. Sows (female pigs) from different families rarely encounter one another in the wild. But on a farm, they are forced to live with hundreds of strangers. Putting them in cages is unnatural, but so too is putting them in an enormous pen. But if we can figure out how to breed sows so that they can live together, we can potentially improve their quality of life on the farm.

Read Sujata’s feature on Mosaic, publishing 17 June 2014.

1 Comment

Introducing the team working behind-the-scenes to bring you new stories each week.

Giles Newton, Editor

Giles oversees all of Mosaic’s output as well as the overall look and feel of the publication, from our website to our social media channels. He also organises the production and publishing schedules, as well as syndication to partners via our Creative Commons licence.

Chrissie Giles, Commissioning Editor

Chrissie commissions, edits and writes stories for Mosaic. She bounces ideas around with the in-house team and freelancers, commissions and edits stories and extras, and manages the production process for this content all the way through to publication.

Mun-Keat Looi, Commissioning Editor

Mun-Keat has a similar role to Chrissie, thinking up, discussing and commissioning new ideas for Mosaic stories, as well as managing a range of stories through the production process and editing them ready for publication. He also oversees Mosaic’s social media channels (on TwitterFacebookInstagramGoogle+Pinterest and Tumblr), any public online discussions that spin-off from Mosaic stories, and manages the Mosaic blog.

Tom Freeman, Copyeditor

Tom is our chief sub-editor and the gatekeeper of good grammar and house style at Mosaic. He checks through our stories for typos, inconsistencies and general sense, often spotting things that other tired editorial eyes have missed. A whiz with headlines, Tom also composed Mosaic’s style guide.

Rob Reddick, Copyeditor

Rob is one of our sub-editors, and like Tom checks the spelling, grammar and style of our stories. He also acts as a fact checker for Mosaic from time to time.

Peta Bell, Art Director

Peta is Mosaic’s Picture Editor and the person responsible for the range of beautiful, thought-provoking imagery accompanying Mosaic pieces. From the very start of a story’s conception, Peta considers what would work best to bring out the essence of the story, grabbing the reader’s attention while also complementing the words. She commissions both photography and original artworks from in-house and freelance photographers and artists.

Penny Bailey, Writer

Penny has been a writer at the Wellcome Trust since 2000. As one of Mosaic’s in-house writers, she seeks out ideas and themes for stories that are both interesting and thought-provoking, that would make the best use of Mosaic’s resources and remit.

Michael Regnier, Writer

Michael is also a writer at the Wellcome Trust. For Mosaic, he is able to report on a wider range of stories in biology and medicine, as well as tracking stories over time – years, in some cases – to follow how they develop.

Barry J Gibb, Film Maker

Barry produces, directs, films and edits documentaries that, in keeping with our remit, ‘explore and explain the science of life’ using a strong visual approach centered on human-driven stories. His web series, Last Chance Saloon, broadcast on Mosaic, has already won an award for 'Outstanding achievement in documentary and lifestyle' at the 2014 Toronto Web Festival.

Chris Chapman, Film Maker

Chris makes films, games, audio and other multimedia for the Wellcome Trust and Wellcome Collection, as well as Mosaic. Like Barry, he produces, directs, films and edits.

Mark Henderson, Editorial Director

Mosaic was Mark’s brainchild and one of the reasons he joined the Wellcome Trust – the chance to create a new publication that would add something interesting, useful and exciting to the media ecosystem was a key part of his proposal in joining as Head of Communications. He oversees Mosaic’s overall direction and tone, feeding in his ideas and experience in communications and 15 years reporting on science for the Times, where he was Science Editor.

You can read more about Mosaic’s staff and contributors on our website’s People pages.

3 Comments

Catherine de Lange

Catherine is a science journalist, editor and multimedia producer living in London, UK. She is especially interested in people, what makes us tick - including genetics, neuroscience, health,  psychology and tech. She is also very interested in gender equality, public health and anything to do with food, gadgets, and preferably both together.

Her written work has been published in New Scientist, Nature, the Observer, the Washington PostCosmos Magazine, SciDev.Net, BBC Future, and Technologist magazine among others.  She has worked on TV programmes such as the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, radio documentaries including BBC Radio 4's 'Dear Professor Hawking', and podcasts for the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Twitter: @catdl

What is your feature about?

It's about a massive project in Brazil to set up free gyms in poor communities, in an attempt to tackle the epidemic in obesity and chronic diseases that go with being inactive. But it's also about inequality and how, for many people, being active and healthy is a luxury that isn't available to them.

What did you learn that you didn't expect?

I was surprised how something as simple as having a safe place to exercise could make such a big difference to people's quality of life - not just to their health, but making communities safer, forming social networks, and empowering communities with few resources to demand more in other sectors too.

I also didn't expect that I would end up rethinking my own attitude to exercise - how bigger the benefits would be if I used it as a way to connect to the environment and other people rather than pounding the treadmill in the gym with my headphones on. It also made me question why we don't invest in similar schemes in the UK, especially as a way of dealing with issues of social isolation and loneliness, let alone the obvious health benefits that come with being active.

Read Catherine’s feature on Mosaic, publishing 10 June 2014.

2 Comments

emma youngEmma Young is an award-winning science and health journalist. A former reporter and editor on New Scientist, working in London and Sydney, she now freelances from an attic in Sheffield. As E L Young (in the UK, Emma in the US), she is also the author of the STORM series of science-based thrillers for kids. 

What is the feature about?

How mild electrical currents can boost the brain – enhancing memory, attention, reaction time, and a host of other measures. The feature also looks at who's investigating the technique (a mixed group that includes the US Air Force, rehab physicians, and clinical neuroscientists) and explores any potential risks.

What did you learn that you didn't expect?

That the benefits for healthy people, as well as people with deficits, can be so pronounced. But there is a big variation in response – the US Air Force research has found that some people are 'super-responders', while others don't benefit as much. Also, while the long-term risks are still by definition unknown, there seem to be no negative side effects from short-term use - so long as you're getting the treatment from someone who really knows what they're doing.

Read Emma’s feature on Mosaic, publishing 3 June 2014.

3 Comments

Patrick StrudwickPatrick Strudwick writes about politics, social issues, health and celebrity for a wide range of titles including The Times, The Independent, The Guardian and the Mail on Sunday. He has won several awards for his interviews and investigative journalism.

Twitter: @PatrickStrud 

Patrick conducted an in-depth interview with virologist Françoise Barré-Sinoussi for Mosaic.

What makes Françoise Barré-Sinoussi an interesting subject for you?

Françoise Barré-Sinoussi holds a unique position in the history of the HIV/Aids pandemic. She was there from the beginning, she identified what was causing countless unexplained deaths, and she has witnessed the entire progression of the virus, both scientifically and socially. Unlike some researchers, Barre-Sinoussi has never been stuck in an ivory tower but instead in among the communities she has tried so desperately to help. She is opinionated, passionate and immensely compassionate. Hers is a story both inspiring, historically important and horribly moving.

What was the most striking thing for you from the interview?

As fascinating as Barre-Sinoussi's account of the discovery of HIV was, it was the personal and the political that struck me the most. Recalling the first man she met who died of Aids and reliving the clinical depression she was struck down by when combination therapy came in were both gut-wrenching to hear. Her rallying call for politicians and religious leaders to stop standing in the way of access to condoms and medication in order to save lives was righteous and vital. Finally, and simply, her controversial advice to the newly diagnosed cut through the debate about when to start treatment with unflinching certainty: take medication as early as possible. I just hope people listen.

Read In conversation with… Françoise Barré-Sinoussi on Mosaic, publishing 27 May 2014.

15 Comments

Virginia HiughesVirginia Hughes is a journalist based in Brooklyn, New York. She is a contributing editor at Popular Science and at MATTER, a digital publication for long-form journalism. She writes about the brain, behavior and genetics on her blog, Only Human, which is hosted by National Geographic Magazine.

Twitter: @virginiahughes

What is your feature about?

It's about a scientist who wants to live forever and who thinks the key to immortality lies in the genes of four little girls who have a rare disease that keeps them from growing.

What did you learn that you didn't expect?

Two big things:

I thought that the scientist was going to end up being a crank -- I mean, really, immortality? That idea has been debunked since Gilgamesh. But the scientist's basic idea -- that there are profound biological links between the process of development and the process of ageing -- is supported by a lot of evidence and believed by many other scientists.

I was also shocked to find out how little money and attention go to ageing research given how important it is to our understanding of disease. As I say in the piece, age is a top risk factor for heart disease, stroke, dementia, and cancer -- for most people in the West, age is the biggest risk factor for death. Many ageing researchers believe that we'd get much more traction from unraveling the mechanisms of ageing than of attempting to "cure" cancer. And I think that's a compelling argument.

Read Virginia's feature on Mosaic, publishing 20 May 2014.

8 Comments

Our monthly round-up of stories and films that have made us think. As well as discussing our reactions to the stories, we also spent some time discussing the headlines/titles chosen for the pieces.

The pope in the attic: Benedict in the time of Francis (The Atlantic)

You may not be especially interested in Catholicism, but this is one piece that could keep you reading to the end. We felt that there were sections that were hard to understand, given a limited knowledge of theology, and the story meandered in places, but still this piece gives a good sense of the characters of the two popes profiled. Could the header could have been a little shorter and punchier?

The magical act of a desperate person (London Review of Books - reg required)

Continuing the theme of thinking about the differences (or not) between essays and features, we discussed this story about the paradoxes of being a good parent, written by a psychoanalyst. A little dense in places, this essay undoubtedly gives the reader plenty of food for thought. The title is beautiful, but does it give an adequate sense of the piece?

U want me 2 kill him? (Vanity Fair)

While some of us found the story gripping, others felt it was voyeuristic and asked if it had to be told. Others got sucked in but found that it lost pace somewhere in the middle. The headline was effective: conveying that it was a story about death, intrigue and online culture.

The silencing of the Deaf (Matter)

This piece on cochlear implants and the Deaf community has a good narrative arc, and marries a contemporary story with historical aspects. There were lots of interesting facts throughout but we felt that the last quarter of the piece could maybe do with a little tightening. The headline was short and pithy and seemed to work well.

The itch nobody can scratch (Matter)

A fascinating story on a contentious disease called Morgellon's, with a clear, self-explanatory title.

Secrets of the tax-prep business (Mother Jones)

This piece on US tax practices is a good example of telling a story in the middle of the action, rather than waiting for an end (i.e. it's not about the abolition of a loan called the RAL, but more the on-going controversy surrounding its use). We liked that the headline lets you know what's coming, and found the table on page 2 a clear way of helping readers wade through a lot of numbers. Others felt that this story lacked the perspective of the customers being sold the loan in question, and that all the figures and names and acronyms were confusing.

Terry Wiles: Man's Estate (East Anglian Film Archive)
Although we didn't think that there was much of a overarching story to this film, and nothing on the background of the thalidomide scandal, Man's Estate gives a great insight into someone living with severe disabilities and the unique and amazing support his adoptive parents offer. It's also wonderfully 70's, which might explain why some people felt that it was framed a little like a wildlife film. We felt that the title was perhaps appropriate to the time, but was out-dated today.

What stories have caught your eye recently? Do share in the comments.

9 Comments

Barry J GibbBarry J Gibb's odd career began as a molecular biologist and neuroscientist but he succumbed to creative urges and started freelancing as a hybrid filmmaker and writer. After several documentaries for Channel 4 (Life After Coma) and the BIMA Award-winning 'Routes', he became the Wellcome Trust's Science Multimedia Producer. In 2011, his 30 minute film Until won the Imagine Science Film Festival's Nature People's Choice Award. His book, The Rough Guide to the Brain, is now in its second edition. 

Twitter: @barryjamesgibb

Barry’s 11-part film miniseries, Last Chance Saloon has been airing weekly on Mosaic. The series culminates with the final episode and a special cinema screening in Cardiff as part of Mental Health Awareness Week 2014.

What is your film series about?

At one level, Last Chance Saloon is an attempt to encompass a great slice of what’s presently known about a whole range of mental illnesses. But it’s also a classic hero’s journey filled with hope, hurdles and the odd moment of despair.  At the heart of the story is Twink, a long time sufferer of bipolar disorder, a veteran of mental illness who’s seen it all and, on occasion, tried to end it all.

We follow Twink on his musical and neurological journey as he meets and interviews Cardiff based experts about a whole range of mental illnesses, in an attempt to get to the root of what his own, and others, conditions actually are – looking for glimmers of hope in the midst of brains scans and discussions about drugs and genetics. An accomplished musician, Twink also decides to give a little back to Cardiff's scientific fraternity by putting on a special gig; a terrifying prospect for a recluse.

Ultimately, the series is about what we don’t know about mental illness, as much as what we do – a banjo strumming call to social, scientific and government action to stop stigmatising, increase research and support those with mental illness.

What did you learn that you didn't expect?

How similar we all are. It may sound trite, but there was a point when myself, Twink and the assembled crew he’d managed to acquire for the gig were hurtling down a motor way from Newcastle to Cardiff (episode 10) and someone pointed out I was one of the only people on the bus that didn’t have a mental illness. Had no one pointed this out, I’d have been none the wiser.

The labels we assign to people with mental illness may be medically useful, from the perspective of treatment but, within a social context, they carry an immense judgmental burden that feeds stigma. My hope is that the films will help people realise how similar we all are, it’s just some of us need a little more help than others to get through the day.

Watch the final episode of Last Chance Saloon on Mosaic, airing 15 May 2014. You can watch all previous episodes on our Last Chance Saloon YouTube playlist.

Also publishing on Mosaic on 15 May, Jenny Diski's personal exploration of chronic depression. 

6 Comments

Frank SwainFrank Swain writes and talks about science. He has a history of making zines, being a filthy scenester, stage-managing burlesque shows, climbing buildings, harrying his betters, arguing the toss and generally being a force for good.

Frank is Communities Editor at New Scientist, and has written for the Times, Telegraph, Guardian, Wired, New Scientist, BBC Focus, BBC Future, Slate, Microbiologist, Stylist, Salon, IET, Rhizome, and Plastic Rhino among others. He is the creator of Futures Exchange on Medium and SciencePunk at National Geographic’s ScienceBlogs portal. His broadcast work includes developing and presenting programs for BBC Radio 4 and Bravo. Previously, he worked at the Royal Statistical Society, heading a government-funded project to develop science workshops for journalists.

His first book, How to Make a Zombie, was published in 2013 by OneWorld Publications.

Twitter: @sciencepunk

What is your feature about?

It’s about experiments in suspended animation - the idea that maybe one day we'll be able to put our bodies on hold, either for medical reasons, or because we want to check out for a little while. We tend to think of life and death as binary terms, but there's a surprising breadth of intermediate states between the two.

What did you learn that you didn't expect?

I was surprised to find out just how physically demanding hibernation is. We tend to think of it as a deep sleep, but it's a set of mechanisms that evolved to combat deplorable conditions of cold and starvation. Warm-blooded animals are not supposed to be able to live for six months at five degrees centigrade with no food. And yet somehow hibernators have figured out a way to do that. Everything in these animals' bodies likes to work at warm temperatures, generously supplied by nutrients and oxygen. Convincing these systems - blood flow, cell repair, breathing, brain activity - to function in the cold on a fraction of their normal energy supplies, and counteracting all of the problems this creates, is nothing short of amazing. Ground squirrels hibernate in the cold earth for seven months of the year. For them, waking life is the aberration; a brief island of hot light and energy that interrupts their natural state.

Read Frank’s feature on Mosaic, publishing 6 May 2014.

6 Comments

Bryn NelsonBryn Nelson is a Seattle-based freelance writer and editor with an avid interest in biology, biomedicine, ecology, green technology, and unconventional travel destinations.

Before becoming a journalist, he received my PhD in microbiology from the University of Washington in Seattle, analysing a protein that helps ferry sugar into bacterial cells, making it a potential model for studying similar proteins linked to cystic fibrosis and multi-drug resistance to cancer. He has a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California at Santa Cruz, and subsequently joined Newsday as a member of the science desk, spending seven years writing extensively about genetics, stem cell research and cloning, evolution, ecology, and conservation. He was one of four principal writers on the award-winning, 13-part “Long Island: Our Natural World” series, which they subsequently converted into a field guide. He also wrote “Saving Bobby,” a multiple award-winning, 12,000-word feature about the frantic effort to save a toddler whose father had accidentally driven over his head.

Twitter: @SeattleBryn

What is your feature about?

In a word: poo. It’s a universal elicitor of disgust, and yet faecal transplants have been extraordinarily effective at resolving a feared bacterial killer known as Clostridium difficile and in improving the lives of those with inflammatory bowel disease. My feature explores why poo disgusts us, how that revulsion may be impacting the availability of a therapy that is winning over once-dubious doctors, what its potential is for treating a wide range of other conditions, and how we might get past our aversion.

I interviewed patients, doctors, researchers and advocates from six countries. I read numerous scientific articles, blogs, case histories and personal accounts, and I visited the office of a gastroenterologist in Tampa, Florida, who offers faecal transplants to his patients. The field trip helped me understand how a transplant is performed, how an admittedly crude process is evolving, and how a once-reluctant doctor has become a big advocate for expanding access.

If disgust is a universal emotion, so is concern for our loved ones. Faecal transplants reside at the crossroads of these conflicting feelings: we may be grossed out by the idea of transferring poo from one person to another, but it can be lifesaving after other therapies have failed. Having an intelligent conversation about when this procedure should be tried, and for what conditions, will require more than a collective “Ewww!”

What did you learn that you didn’t expect?

It turns out that faecal transplants have a very colourful history that dates back to ancient China. That was certainly unexpected. I was also surprised by the size of the DIY community that has formed in response to a perceived lack of attention by mainstream medical providers. In many cases, patients are introducing the therapy to doctors’ offices, not the other way around. Finally, I was unaware of just how many options there are of actually delivering the payload. 

Read Bryn’s feature on Mosaic, publishing 29 April 2014.