Contributor corner: Kat Arney

Kat ArneyDr Kat Arney is a science writer and broadcaster living in London – not so much the female Brian Cox, more the Nigella of science. By day she is a science communicator, award-winning blogger, podcaster and media spokesperson for the charity Cancer Research UK. By night she writes for outlets such as the New Scientist, the Guardian and the BBC. She has presented several science documentaries on BBC Radio 4, co-presents the Naked Scientists BBC 5Live radio show and podcast, and presents and produces a monthly Naked Genetics podcast.

Kat is currently working on her first book, Herding Hemingway's Cats, to be published by Bloomsbury Sigma, and plays harp and other instruments with the bands Talk in Colour and Sunday Driver in her spare time. She is also one of the “Top 10 Brits who make science sexy”, according to BBC America, and doesn't sleep much.

Twitter: @harpistkat

What is your feature about?

It's a story about understanding how patterns are created in nature, from the stripes on a zebra's back to the fingers in our hands. It starts with paper published by computer scientist Alan Turing in 1952, putting forward mathematical ideas to explain these patterns. And it ends with a recent paper from a team of researchers in Spain, who have finally identified the molecules that interact to create the digits in mouse paws and proved that Turing's ideas are at work, after many years of being rejected by the established scientific community.

What did you learn that you didn't expect?

I was surprised by how much the original choices of model organism – chicken and fruit fly – affected subsequent decades of research and prevailing ideas in the field of limb and embryo development, which worked against Turing's ideas and those who promoted them. I know that science is not always the purely reason and evidence-based discipline that it is made out to be – certain personalities and ideas come to dominate, even when they may not necessarily be correct. But even I was surprised by how strongly some of these “Just So Stories” had been accepted as dogma, and how difficult it was for scientists with alternative ideas about pattern formation to get them accepted. In the end the data has to win out, but it's a long and dirty fight along the way. 

Read Kat’s feature on Mosaic, publishing 12 August 2014.