Science in The Pink City

2018 ASC grant recipient Linda Hales reports on her recent trip to the lab tours in Toulouse

How do you get an arachnophobe to stand in a small room next to a big glass container of spiders? One way to lure them in is by simply saying there’s interesting research being done in that room. That, combined with the fact I knew I wouldn’t hear the French scientist properly if I stood in the hallway, is how I found myself squeezed up next to a table in a little room with a collection of international journalists and a bunch of social spiders.

The lead researcher explained that unlike most of the thousands of species of spiders in the world, social spider species coexist peacefully (painting pictures of webs metres wide, filled with tens of thousands of happy arachnids, while I suppressed the urge to madly brush down my crawling skin). But scientists don’t understand the drivers of much of their behaviour. Even when they’re starving, why don’t they turn to cannibalism? Why do solitary spiders ‘lose’ their early social tendencies? Why are social spiders only found in tropical and subtropical areas? Combined with a deep shame at the thought of admitting to being an Australian zoology grad afraid of a crawling creature, it was fascinating enough to keep me still.

This was just one of many research groups we were introduced to during the laboratory tours at the Research Centre on Animal Cognition: we watched a little bee working out the fastest way to fly between a garden of ‘flowers’ holding sugar solutions; saw some robots that have been programmed to school like fish; tried a virtual reality tour of a termite nest; and were introduced to the famous, clever, brainless, slime mould (or the “blob,” which 2018 European Science Writer Award finalist Nathaniel Herzberg wrote about for Le Monde).

The lab tours were part of attending the European Conference of Science Journalists and European Science Open Forumin Toulouse, in July 2018.

The Pink City was absolutely buzzing, although sweltering—full of scientists, journalists, and people shouting at TVs screening the World Cup. The week had kicked off with the journalist conference on a Sunday, which included discussions on science journalism in an authoritarian context, the strengths and limitations of philanthropically funded journalism, whether true independence can be maintained with increasing numbers of science journalists also working as science communicators, and more.

I spent Monday to Saturday at ESOF—writing about thediscovery of the first complete skull of the mastodon species Gomphotherium pyrenaicum(for Cosmos), and sitting in on discussions ranging from cities of the future to science communication in the Nordics, and whether poetry can help people connect with science on a more emotional level. I met some wonderful people who I hope to see again at conferences in the future.

Although there were inevitable discussions on the challenges facing science journalism and science communication that flowed over from conference sessions into social events (put a bunch of science journalists together and they’ll keep talking science and journalism) there was a persisting thread underneath these. For better or worse, most people at events like these are addicted to the area. In one breath there’s funding cuts to science or newsrooms, but in the next is what everyone is investigating now. You’ll hear the reasons they’re still in their field: chasing stories, digging into studies, questioning findings, talking to interesting people. Asking questions, and always learning something new. It’s enough to keep anyone in a room with spiders.

Click here for 2018 ASC grant recipients