People in this country have had enough of experts

The title is a quote of Michael Gove — to be fair on him I think he was referring to economists – a profession whose track record of consistently making inaccurate predictions is notorious. But still, as a PhD educated scientist, the quote does rankle a bit. Although that may be just my natural reaction to Michael Gove – he could read the phone book and I’d still get grumpy.

But the quote is memorable, and I thought about it while reading Chaos Monkeys by Antonio Garcia Martinez. The book, which I really enjoyed, is about Garcia Martinez’s time working in Silicon Valley – the part of California south of San Francisco where Google, Facebook, Apple, WhatsApp, etc are. Many British people may have had enough of experts but Google, Facebook, Apple, etc have not. They’re hiring them for six-figure salaries plus stock options, and putting them to work.

Some of these experts are busy experimenting on us, using the standard scientific method that my colleagues and I teach. They do this because the scientific method is the best way to increase their profits. For example, 20 minutes ago I went on the Amazon website and looked at some laptops, I then went to The Guardian website, which displayed an ad for laptops. This is not coincidence.

Very well paid experts are writing code that ran on ad servers when my computer requested The Guardian homepage. As well as the code that delivered the news items to my browser, separate code effectively sold ad space on the webpage to the highest bidder – in this case to Microsoft who want to sell me a Surface Pro. I find this quite impressive, in the time it took for the webpage to download, a number of companies, including Microsoft, bid automatically for screen space on my laptop, and Microsoft won.

The algorithms that run this auctioning and ad display are optimised via the good old scientific method of testing a hypothesis using experiments with controls. The experts at Google etc develop a new algorithm that they hypothesise is better, i.e., generates more clicks and so more money for Google. This is a testable hypothesis, so they test it. They partition some very large number of web users (i.e., us) into two groups, one group gets the new algorithm and the other the old. Then within a couple of days they can just tot up the ad revenue for the two groups, if the group with the new algorithm generated more money they can roll out the new algorithm, but if the ad income from control group is higher, they won’t.

A clear example of the scientific method at work, and a demonstration of how organisations that want to get the job done and make money have not had enough of at least some types of experts.

Making spines in two steps

DiademseeigelThis is a sea urchin, sea urchins can’t move fast so rely on these spines and the fact that they have a hard shell, to protect them from predators. Both the spines and the shell are made from crystalline calcium carbonate in the form of a mineral called calcite. Scientists have long been fascinated by how animals such as sea urchins grow these calcite crystals to form these striking spines. Continue reading

People who tell computers what to do, and people who are told by computers what to do.

The title is part of a quote by Marc Andreesen, an American IT entrepreneur*. The full quote is: “The spread of computers and the internet will put jobs in two categories. People who tell computers what to do, and people who are told by computers what to do.” I got it from the book I am currently reading: Chaos Monkeys by Antonio Garcia Martinez. I have just started reading the book, and it is very entertaining. In a nutshell, the author’s style is: I’m a bastard but less of a bastard than many of my ex-coworkers, and I’m charming :). This is quite refreshing. Chaos Monkeys is mainly about his time working in IT companies in Silicon Valley, including at Facebook.

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Self-assembly pope and self-assembling proteins in soap

Over the Christmas period I have been trying out a few beers, including Brewdog’s weirdly named Self Assembly Pope. This beer is a porter, with some cocoa, coconut and vanilla added to spice it up. It is a pretty good porter, although I am not a big fan of coconut, on its own or in beer, and so probably will not be coming back to it*. What I will be doing in 2017 is working on getting membrane proteins to self-assemble into as large and as regular crystals as possible. This is part of an EU-wide network on membrane-protein crystallisation that will be starting in 2017. Membrane proteins are proteins that live in back-to-back layers of soapy molecules — which is what cell membranes are. Membrane proteins are important as many (by some measures a majority) of drugs target these proteins.

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An early Christmas present

1L9H (Bovine Rhodopsin) 2Right at the beginning of this year, I was on a bid for EU funding, to develop new approaches in crystallising membrane proteins (an example membrane protein is shown to the left). The proposal was submitted in January. At the start of May we found out were on the ‘reserve list’, whereupon we assumed that that was it, we were unsuccessful. We exchanged gallows-humours jokes about feeling like an Olympic athlete who finishes fourth, and just misses out on a medal. A bit later we found out that the success rate was about 6%,  apparently we were part of the 94% who failed. Six months has now passed since we learnt this, and we heard nothing from Brussels.

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The milk-fueled conquest of Europe

Milk glassI had milk on my breakfast cereal this morning, and I am writing a new lecture on evolution for my biological physics course. The connection between these two facts is the lactase enzyme. Baby mammals of all mammal species drink their mothers’ milk, which contains a lot of its calories in the form of the sugar lactose. The baby mammals produce the lactase enzyme in their guts to digest the lactose. But when they grow up they no longer drink milk, and as lactose is rare except in milk, the growing mammals stop producing the lactase enzyme.

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Students not impressed by Nobel-worthy teaching

Yesterday Sir Fraser Stoddart won a one third share of the 2016 Chemistry Nobel Prize, for developing molecular machines, i.e., molecules that act like machines in the sense that they can move, exert forces etc. Stoddart was an academic in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Sheffield, when I started as an undergraduate. He never taught me as I didn’t take his course, but he did teach friends of mine. They were not impressed by the future Nobel Laureate. Continue reading

Crystals both large and small

Cristales cueva de NaicaAbove are crystals in a cave in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. They are huge, note that the person in the picture shows the scale. The crystals are up to 10 m long, have masses of tens of tons, and are made of gypsum, a form of calcium sulphate. It is estimated that they took hundreds of thousands of years to grow. So around about the time our ancestors were wandering around Africa, a tiny nucleus formed, and started to grow. Hundreds of thousands of years later, we have these enormous crystals.

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Evolution in action

Seeing is believing, so it is good to see evolution in action. The above movie shows a huge petri dish with bacteria starting at both edges where there is no antibiotic. The dish has a gradient of increasing concentration of this antibiotic towards the centre of the plate. Initially they can’t grow in the regions where the antibiotic concentration is high. But they evolve resistance and just march up the gradient of the antibiotic. This takes about two weeks. Impressive.

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