Welcome to the new Fluffy Sciences!

Hello folks and welcome to the new-look (and nicer domain-name) Fluffy Sciences!

At present, the old blog is still happily present within the old domain, so all your links will still work. I’ve spent the last two years working in veterinary education research, and I’ve picked up a new phrase to describe myself ‘discipline based educational researcher’. I like it a lot, and I’ve started using it more and more, so this seems like a nice opportunity to cleanly move between the old Fluffy Sciences and the new.

(And yes, I hope this means a return to more frequent blogging . . .)



Reasons Why Twister Is The Most Pro-Science Blockbuster

Twister is one of my top five films of all time. If it’s not in yours you need to rethink your priorities. Now it’s not necessarily the most scientifically accurate movie of all time, but I think it’s one the most positive depictions of science, and one of the best depictions of science community I’ve ever seen.

Here are the main points of my thesis:

  • The research group fights about what music they listen to when they drive, with one group favouring showtunes and the other favouring rock.
  • Dustin (Seymour Hopkins‘ character) is the the token “good at emotions” character, always rushing to make sure everyone’s okay
  • There are (repeated) arguments about how to store equipment
  • There is one who is always on the phone fixing problems (Jami Gertz’s character). Every research group has one of these people.
  • Someone in the team has a family member really good at cooking and the whole team adopts them.
  • There’s a lot of bitterness about that one person who went after the money instead of the science.
  • Nobody has a particularly good work-life balance.
  • No one can decide whose responsibility it is to write up the papers.


And to conclude, the true reason Twister is the best depiction of science culture ever:

Fluffy Friday – Growing Up

My radiator exploded tonight. Which is a convoluted lead in to the Syrian refugee crisis.

I didn’t intend on writing this post. I intended on spending tonight doing some fancy things for our upcoming MOOC. As it was a bit chilly, I put the new radiators on high and sat down to keep designing thumbnails . . . until hot water started spraying out the top of the radiator.

A few frantic googles told me what I’d already guessed, turn off the radiator and the boiler, and I phoned my amazing installation company to get their voicemail. They called me back immediately, on a Friday evening as well, and promised to be over soon.

I waited for the engineer, anxious and upset. This was so unfair, I thought, what have I done to deserve hot water spewing all over my floor? And then the engineer arrived, and very kindly completely turned my radiator off, restarted my boiler, and drained the broken radiator. This wasn’t the engineer’s radiator, or their installation, this was entirely their kindness showing up on a Friday evening to do something that any self respecting adult should have been able to figure out for herself. They calmed me down and reassured me, promised to get in touch after the weekend.

And I was left with the strange realisation that my whole life I have been coddled and protected, lived in a world where hard work is rewarded with help, and where fairness and justness matters.

The refugees fleeing Syria have tried everything they can, and there is no fair reward, no kindness shown to them. My greatest upset today, something that brought me close to tears, was having some hot water stain my carpet. The strength of my emotional reaction to a silly radiator problem is shameful, when children are drowning trying to escape a war.

I have no reference for how these people are feeling. My personal disaster scale is so completely skewed to the other side that their experience is almost infinitely impossible for me to grasp.

The Guardian has a practical advice list. I will write my MP. One of my colleagues is collecting resources to donate. But I feel very sober today as I wonder if there’s a Syrian postdoc out there, wishing that the worst problem in her life is a leaky radiator.

Fluffy Friday – Virtual Nature

Ahh it’s the end of the week, a new paper was accepted, the exam boards are all finished up, and I’ve marked my second last thesis, time to kick my feet up and chill out with a nature documentary .  . .

A nature documentary made in Grand Theft Auto V! ‘Onto the Land’ is a lovely little piece of machinima, and it contains all the great tropes of nature documentaries. And of course, if you live in Edinburgh, you’ve got to support Rockstar North.

Watch ‘Onto the Land’ here:

Fluffy Friday – More Animal Welfare Teaching

I am on annual leave this week, which is glorious, particularly as there are so many developments in the pipeline at work. Lots of exciting things coming up. Look out for MOOC news coming soon, as well as some news about what we’re doing for World Animal Day in October.

There may or may not be a post next week, depending on how much fun I get up to on my annual leave, so while you’re waiting, why not vote on some possibilities for the future.

Go to Strawpoll to vote!

Chronicles of Athena – 42 Weeks

Oh the freedom you feel on a Sunday when you also have the Monday off. I am going to live the life of a short girl on the internet and hem some cute dresses and fix a seam on a kimono I got from a vintage shop. It’s all going to be very pinterest, with a little kitten sitting beside a sewing machine and a freshly made caramel latte (from a machine – I am the definition of bourgeois bohemian).

But of course, the photos I post to instagram will not fully represent what’s happening as I repeatedly shout “Athena! Theena! Drop it! Don’t eat that. Here have this.” and obsessively count glass headed pins and picture perforated intestines. But social media isn’t really for reality, is it?

Several people have commented lately that Athena appears to know her name. I’ve been meditating on this from a scientific point of view. You can certainly catch Athena’s attention with her name, or the ‘Theenie/Theena’ variants of it. But does she know that those words specifically mean ‘small fluffy thing that is me’, or do they mean ‘there might be food or toys or love over there’, or more simply ‘pay attention now’.

But she also has certain chirrups that I fancy mean ‘mum’ or at the least ‘two legged cat who feeds me’. Even if it just means ‘pay attention now’, it gets the job done, right?

Somehow, with different brain structures, an evolutionary history giving us very different social structures, Athena and I can reliably draw one another’s attention with certain vocalisations. Pets are freaky.

Chronicles of Athena – 40 Weeks

This week a man came into the house and played about with Athena’s favourite window. He even stood on her beautiful window sill with his boots on. I am sure you can imagine just how upset she was by the whole event.

Our new flat has the most beautiful light and I couldn’t resist taking advantage of it yesterday to demonstrate a cool little quirk of feline physiology. You might have seen this demonstrated on the BBC’s wonderful ‘Secret Life of Cats‘ but hopefully this video will show you how you can demonstrate this as a teacher or parent (or just to other people if you have a cat on hand!)

Watch how, despite no change in the light levels, Athena’s pupil size changes drastically before she pounces on Mr Ducky. She opens her pupils as wide as she can before pouncing so she can take in as much information as possible. It’s very obvious once you start looking for it, and would supplement a lesson on the physiology of the eye really well.



Animal science and behaviour science isn’t always easy to demonstrate, unlike chemistry or physics where you can set up experiments with a lot of household objects. I keep meaning to collect small examples of animal behaviour that work like this, so if you think this  kind of thing is useful, do let me know.

Chronicles of Athena – 34 Weeks

While Athena is not my first cat, she is the first cat who is wholly mine, who would absolutely not survive without me. My last family cat, Posie, was euthanised in late 2009, and I went to get Athena on a sunny September morning in 2014.

While Posie had four caretakers who loved her, and Athena has only me, these aren’t the biggest differences in my relationships between the two cats. In many ways, they’re very similar. They both get very excited by cuddle time, they both put up with my restless sleeping by taking up position on my legs, they both chirrup when they say hello and they both have a fondness for crab pate.

But I find myself saying things to Athena that I’ve never had to say to cats before, and I every time I do I can’t help but roll my eyes at how much changes in five short years. For example:

  • “No, lattes are not for kittens”
  • “Take your head out of that gin and tonic”
  • “Please don’t hit YouTube with your nose, now it has paused”
  • “No baby, you can’t text with me, you text gibberish”
  • “The phone is not your toy”
  • “Okay, well, yes, when it’s got your app on it it becomes your toy”
  • “No, kitten, I was talking to the XBox, not to you, you go back to sleep, XBOX ON!”

However, one thing I say hasn’t changed “THAT FOOD IS MINE YOU HAVE YOUR OWN AND IT’S FULL!”

Fluffy Friday – Citizen Science Tackles The Dress

So there’s this dress right . . .

Last night I was doing some stand up science in the pub with Eu:Sci which was a huge amount of fun (thanks for the invite guys!) and then I may possibly have had some beers afterwards. When I was scrolling through tumblr on the way home, I noticed a blue and black dress . . .


This morning, while promoting #StreetDog (if you haven’t watched it – go watch it, it’s amazing) and preparing for our Friday HangOut, I saw that the little blue and black dress had taken the internet by storm, and also it was now white and gold.

ASAPScience does a great video on just why we perceive the dress differently: 

And then Buzzfeed (who are really running with this whole thing) have found that younger people are more likely to find the dress to be white and gold. They also made the link between the phenomenon and autism (a somewhat tenuous link, no matter how ‘profound’ they want to call it).

I love it. I love, first of all, that the internet can run with something so silly. (If only they could run with #StreetDog!) And I love how the illusion changes. Throughout the day I have perceived the dress differently, it’s currently blue and black again, but spent most of the day white and gold. This makes me wonder if there’s also a time of day effect affecting the way we perceive the illusion – if we’re more primed to see blue lights (and therefore white and gold dresses) during the day, but yellow lights (and therefore blue and black dresses) in the evening when we expect to see more artificial lighting.

And I think it does say something interesting about sentience – or being able to perceive the world around you. There’s a common philosophy question: “is your green my green?” As we can never perceive the world through another’s person’s neurobiology, we have no real guarantee that the green I see is the same green you see. We were taught that colour was green, but what I view as green, may look red through your eyes. We have no real common reference point.

With the sad news of Leonard Nimoy’s passing, I’m reminded of the undershirts the DS9 and Voyager crews wore on Star Trek. To me those are, and always will be, lilac. My friend still insists they’re grey. I have pretty poor colour vision anyway, and a photographer’s understanding of the awful things fluorescent lighting and auto white balance can do to a picture –  I wonder if this is why I can force my brain to perceive it both ways.

When I look at the picture and am able to comprehend both colour sets, it feels odd. Almost like the beginning of a migraine’s visual aura, where things start to glitter and take on visual properties they don’t have. Our brains are really rubbish sometimes, especially when they’re trying to parse information they don’t understand. Ever wondered why stomach pain is so pervasive and nagging? Your brain isn’t very good at figuring out where that pain is coming from, so it just gives a general “the stomach” feeling to you. If I was to ask you “How many of each animal did Moses take on the ark?” you would promptly answer “two“, because your brain had decided that it’s not important to remember that it was Noah on the ark, not Moses, even though that information is there and readily accessible. If I was to to tell you to find the flaw in tihs sentence, you might struggle. Your brain would edit out the superfluous ‘to’ and rearrange the letters in ‘this’.

So yes – our brains are deeply imperfect, cobbled together by evolution to create something that half way functions. We compare our brains to one another, and to other animals, and are left with nothing. I wonder, if I get migraines, can Athena? If I see the dress as white, does she see it as blue? When she stares at a spot on the wall, is there something happening between her eyes and her brain tricking her?

If you’re annoyed about the dress, just smile – it’s pretty cool. And it’s not the only one…

I see both

Chronicles of Athena – 30 Weeks

Those of you who have been following Athena from the beginning will remember she has a strong predilection for chewing wires. I used to be one of these pinterest addicts with fairy lights everywhere, the mood lighting in my life has been considerably reduced in the last twenty one weeks of my life.

Well no longer! View below my newest attempt to reintroduce fairy lights into my life, this time without the scent of lemon and pepper cat deterrent.


Not the small Yankee Candle currently being used a dead match repository to keep kitten from eating them all. She does love the taste of charcoal . . .

In the grand scheme of things, my life hasn’t changed so much since getting Athena. I’m less likely to stay late at work (a very good thing, really!) and more likely to catch up with work in the evenings (wait …), and I can no longer leave food lying out in the open. Oh, and I’m covered in scratches. The little things though, like the fact she’s sneaked up behind me to steal half the blanket and is kneading both it and my cardigan with a very smug purr, are very different.

She doesn’t change much from week to week any more, although she is firmly establishing her fussiness for food. So I may post more Fluffy Fridays vs Chronicles of Athena in the next few months. Rest assured, she’s still doing well.

Check out our MOOC’s hangout this week . . .