Wednesday, 28 February 2018

How you talk to your child changes their brain

Most parents know that talking to their child is important. But a new study has revealed that it’s how you talk to your child that really matters for their brain growth. Read more about chatting and cognitive development in my latest story for the World Economic Forum.

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Why speaking more than one language can boost economic growth

My latest piece for the World Economic Forum: multilingualism is good for the economy, researchers have found. Countries that actively nurture different languages reap a range of rewards, from more successful exports to a more innovative workforce. (And speaking more than one language actually boosts your earning power, as one study showed - even if you don't need your additional language on the job).

Friday, 26 May 2017

Charlotte Salomon Centenary

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Charlotte Salomon, the Berliner artist who created Leben? Oder Theater? ('Life? Or Theatre?') - a painted memoir that tells the story of her life in more than a thousand gouaches.

Salomon painted the wonderfully strange, moving and beautiful work in her early twenties, while she was hiding from the Nazis in southern France. Not long after its completion, she was arrested and deported to Auschwitz, where she was killed at the age of twenty-six. A friend saved the gouaches and handed them to Salomon's father and stepmother after the war. A selection was published as a 'diary in pictures' in the 1960s. But it was not until the late 20th century that Salomon found proper recognition.

A (more or less) complete version of Leben? Oder Theater? was only published in 1981, and in 1994 a meticulously researched biography by Mary Felstiner, an American scholar, drew global attention to Salomon and her work (To Paint Her Life: Charlotte Salomon in the Nazi Era; HarperCollins). Since then, Salomon has inspired researchers, writers and artists around the world. Her bold exploration of female identity, family secrets, mental illness and the quest for artistic fulfilment seems to have finally found the appreciative audience it deserves.

Earlier this month I spoke about different aspects of Leben? Oder Theater? at a Charlotte Salomon study day at Goldsmiths College. I focused on Salomon's depiction of motherhood and childhood ("This Cosy Family Life": A Literary Perspective on Motherhood and Childhood in Charlotte Salomon's Leben? Oder Theater?). Unfortunately I was only able to catch a small section of the study day, but I'm hoping that there'll be many more events around Salomon and her work this year.

A small (free!) exhibition on Salomon will be on for a few more days at the Women's Art Library at Goldsmiths, and is definitely worth visiting. I would also strongly recommend Astrid Schmetterling's book 'Charlotte Salomon: Bilder eines Lebens'. Astrid co-organised the study day and has written extensively on Salomon, and the book is a really thoughtful and interesting investigation into her life and work.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Why Constable's Rainbow May Carry a Hidden Message

A mystery surrounding one of John Constable's most emotionally-charged landscapes may finally have been solved – by a meteorologist.

I always enjoy writing about art and science, and this feature for BBC Britain was particularly fun. Who knew that Constable was really into rainbow science? That rainbows are a bit like sun dials? And that Constable was plagued by self-doubt and never felt anything he painted was quite good enough?

I also liked this quote from Professor Thornes, the meteorologist, on Constable's passion for science, which will probably resonate with a lot of artists (and scientists):

“Constable said we see nothing truly until we understand it. And the rainbow is a case in point. You don't see a rainbow properly until you understand how it's formed."

Friday, 13 January 2017

Populism Explained (by a Neuroscientist)

I interviewed Dr. Molly Crockett, a behavioural psychologist, on the destructive, addictive urge to punish - a phenomenon known as "costly punishment" - and how it's linked to the rise of populism. The bad news is that each act of retribution makes it more likely that the person will do it again... that's the addictive part.

Also, "one speculation is that this destructive impulse to punish may be even stronger when people are under chronic stress, for example during an economic recession."

Obviously her research doesn't fully explain why people voted for Brexit and Trump, but it offers some interesting new angles. Here's another quote:

"Populist messaging has been very effective in channelling retributive impulses into votes. Around the world populist movements are wreaking economic destruction and social turmoil in the name of moral principles. That may be the story people are telling themselves and others, but it's likely not the only motive."

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Growing human bones from stem cells

Nina Tandon is one of the scientists working on growing human bones from stem cells - a new technique that could replace synthetic implants and conventional grafts. I interviewed her for the World Economic Forum's blog series on ten leading female scientists.

"I'd like to be able to say that if you're born with congenital defects, you don't have to be consigned to a lifetime of disfigurement, that you can have your face restored," she told me. "More broadly, I love the idea that we can look at our own body as a source of healing, as opposed to pills and machines."

How your garden could power your wifi

This is another science Q&A I did for for the World Economic Forum - on how you can tap the roots of growing plants to generate power.

"Our approach doesn't force you to decide between growing food and growing fuel," says Marjolein Helder, one of the researchers working on this. "For example, you could use the same paddy to grow rice and produce electricity."