Why I've quit Twitter for good

Say hello to a world where you can just do stuff, without talking about the stuff you're doing!

This week, I gave up Twitter. For good.

I'd been thinking about it for a while, but there it was: as of Saturday afternoon I am just me, and not @stebax (formerly @antonvowl). I won't be coming back; I'm gone forever. At least, that's the plan.

Hey, Twitter, we had good times, you and me. We followed a few people; we had some hashtags; we broke superinjunctions and called ourselves Spartacus. But I think it's time we went our separate ways. If it's any consolation, it's not you; it's me.

For one thing, I'm planning on becoming a teacher soon. As such, it's not good to have every single thought you utter out there for the world to see, searchable forever more, by the odd the rogue vexatious parent or and mischievous pupil. I'd rather not comb through everything I've ever said, or run the risk of starting all over and saying one regrettable thing.

It's a different world, this one we're working in now. If you're in the public sector, there are people who are out to get you, to snivel if you do anything other than flog yourself with a cast iron sign saying "sweat of hardworking taxpayers" during a lunchbreak. If you're in education, there are people who might want to see you done down, and could look for any excuse, in or out of the workplace, to do it.

Your Twitter identity is something that represents you, or so you like to think; perhaps it's just an imago of what you'd like to be, if you were someone else, a kind of Second Life. I had a tiny square avatar to represent my entire personality - first it was Kenny Everett's Spider-Man, stood at a urinal; then, it was Monsieur Tourette from Modern Toss; then, it was the Vietnamese stuffed monkey toy who sits watching me as a write at my desk at home; then it was my own large potato-shaped face. I became me.

As I did so, I emerged into a world of writing, a career and lifestyle where you have to adopt a kind of overly keen whacky 1980s Radio 1 DJ type persona in order to convince yourself that your pitches are brilliant and you have the brio to overcome your doubts. Those of you who do know me in real life will understand how uncomfortable that would make me be.

It's easier to maintain that artifice if you're hiding behind a pseudonym and other people's ideas of who you are, rather than their knowledge of every cough and spit you make. But you can't go from reality to anonymity and back again; and if you're not comfortable inviting everyone into your life, you can't do it anymore.

So, that's that. And so far, I've not really missed it. There have been a couple of times when I've been watching something on TV and I've thought to myself: "Ooh, I really ought to tweet something about this; it might get five, or even six, retweets." And then I've stopped myself and thought: "You know, you don't have to say anything. You really don't need to say anything at all."

I'll miss the feeling of creativity and instant fun, which is what Twitter could be at its best. And I'll miss the people. Some of them were friends already; some of them became friends through our @-mentions and DMs. Twitter is where you get to choose your friends by seeing what they're like, rather than being lumbered with the same old faces down the pub. Look at me, talking in the present tense! I can't let go yet, can I?

But I'm going to have to.

Goodbye grabbing the mobile every time I think about sharing something moderately observational about something I'm watching on TV with people I have and will never meet. Hello to a world where you can just do stuff, without talking about the stuff you're doing, or talking about talking about the stuff you're doing (except for this, of course, but this doesn't count).

See you all on Google Plus! Hashtag only kidding semicolon close bracket.

Where's @stebax gone?
Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP/Getty Images
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Why aren’t there more scientists in the National Portrait Gallery?

If the National Portrait Gallery celebrates the best of British achievements, there’s a vast area that is being overlooked.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London is my favourite place to visit in the city, even though I’m a mere scientist, or uncultured philistine as the gallery’s curators might consider me. Much of my research involves “omics”. We have “genomics” and “transcriptomics" to describe the science of sequencing genomes. “Proteomics” characterises our proteins and “metabolomics” measures refers to the small chemical “metabolites” from which we’re composed. The “ome” suffix has come to represent the supposed depiction of systems in their totality. We once studied genes, but now we can sequence whole genomes. The totality of scientific literature is the “bibliome”. The NPG purports to hang portraits of everyone who is anyone; a sort of “National Portraitome”.

However, I am increasingly struck by the subjective view of who is on display. Some areas of British life get better coverage than others. Kings and queens are there; Prime ministers, authors, actors, artists and playwrights too. But where are the scientists? Those individuals who have underpinned so much of all we do in the modern world. Their lack of representation is disappointing, to say the least. A small room on the ground floor purports to represent contemporary science. An imposing portrait of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and current president of the world’s most prestigious science academy (the Royal Society (RS)) dominates the room. Opposite him is a smaller picture of Nurse’s predecessor at the RS, astronomer Martin Rees. James Dyson (the vacuum cleaner chap), James Lovelock (an environmental scientist) and Susan Greenfield all have some scientific credentials. A couple of businessmen are included in the room (like scientists, these people aren’t artists, actors, playwrights or authors). There is also one of artist Mark Quinn’s grotesque blood-filled heads. Some scientists do study blood of course.

Where are our other recent Nobel winners? Where are the directors of the great research institutes, funding bodies, universities and beyond? Does the nation really revere its artists, playwrights and politicians so much more than its scientists? I couldn’t find a picture of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the key role played by DNA in genetics. Blur, however, are there. “Parklife” is certainly a jaunty little song, but surely knowing about DNA has contributed at least as much to British life.

Returning to my “omics” analogy, the gallery itself is actually more like what’s called the “transcriptome”. Genes in DNA are transcribed into RNA copies when they are turned on, or “expressed”. Every cell in our body has the same DNA, but each differs because different genes are expressed in different cell types. Only a fraction of the NPG’s collection ends up “expressed” on its walls at any one time. The entire collection is, however, available online. This allows better insight into the relative value placed upon the arts and sciences. The good news is that Francis Crick has 10 portraits in the collection – considerably more than Blur. Better still, Sir Alexander Fleming, the Scottish discoverer of antibiotics has 20 likenesses, two more than Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. I had suspected the latter might do better. After all, antibiotics have only saved hundreds of millions of lives, while Bond saved us all when he took out Dr No.

To get a broader view, I looked at British winners of a Nobel Prize since 1990, of which there have been 27. Three of these were for literature, another three each for economics and physics, a couple for peace, five for chemistry and 11 for physiology or medicine. The writers Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter and V S Naipaul respectively have 16, 19 and five portraits in the collection. A majority of the scientist winners have no portrait at all. In fact there are just 16 likenesses for the 24 non-literature winners, compared to 40 for the three writers. Albeit of dubious statistical power, this small survey suggests a brilliant writer is around 20 times more likely to be recognised in the NPG than a brilliant scientist. William Golding (1983) was the last British winner of a Nobel for literature prior to the 90s. His eight likenesses compare to just two for Cesar Milstein who won the prize for physiology or medicine a year later in 1984. Milstein invented a process to create monoclonal antibodies, which today serve as a significant proportion of all new medicines and generate over £50bn in revenue each year. Surely Milstein deserves more than a quarter of the recognition (in terms of portraits held in the gallery) bestowed upon Golding for his oeuvre, marvellous as it was.

C P Snow famously crystallised the dichotomy between science and the humanities in his 1959 Rede lecture on “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (which was based on an article first published in the New Statesman in 1956). He attacked the British establishment for entrenching a cultural preference for the humanities above science, a schism he saw growing from the roots of Victorian scientific expansion. The gallery supports Snow’s view. Room 18, my favourite, “Art, Invention and Thought: the Romantics” covers that turbulent period covering the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Here we find the groundbreaking astronomer (and harpsichordist) William Herschel, the inventor of vaccination Dr Edward Jenner, the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davy and the physicist who came up with the first credible depiction of an atom, John Dalton. Opposite Jenner (who also composed poetry) is the portrait of another medically trained sitter, John Keats, who actually swapped medicine for poetry. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Burns, Blake, Clare, Shelley and Byron, all adorn the walls here. The great Mary Shelly has a space too. She wrote Frankenstein after listening to Davy’s famous lectures on electricity. The early nineteenth century saw the arts and science united in trying to explain the universe.

Room 27, the richest collection of scientists in the building, then brings us the Victorians. The scientists sit alone. Darwin takes pride of place, flanked by his “bull dog” Thomas Huxley. Other giants of Victorian science and invention are present, such as Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, Brunel, Stephenson, Lister and Glasgow’s Lord Kelvin. Inevitably the expansion of science and understanding of the world at this time drove a cultural divide. It’s less clear, however, why the British establishment grasped the humanities to the bosom of its cultural life, whilst shunning science. But as the gallery portrays today, it is a tradition that has stuck. However, surely the NPG however has an opportunity to influence change. All it needs to do is put some more scientists on its walls.