300 years is a long time in hi-tech research

All Nippon Airways Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner JA801A OKJThree hundred years ago, an act of parliament created a prize for the solving a then highly pressing technological problem: How a ship at see could work out where on Earth it actually was, in particular what its longitude was. If you are like me and always get longitude and latitude mixed up, longitude is position east-west, while latitude is north-south. As I learnt last week in a IoP South Central general talk by Dr Rebekah Higgitt, the biggest (of several) contributions to solving this was by John Harrison, who made the first clocks that were very accurate at sea.

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Paper after paper rejected, yet no front page story for me

Yesterday The Times led with a story that a paper on climate science was rejected by the journal Environmental Research Letters. Sorry, it is behind a paywall so you will have to take my word for it. But the Telegraph and Mail both have articles on it, both of which manage to imply ‘McCarthy’ style persecution of Prof Benngtsson, one of the authors of the paper. I have had many papers rejected from a number of journals. Also as a peer-reviewer I have recommended the rejection of more papers than I care to remember. I am upset. Despite my heroic efforts none of the Times, Mail or Telegraph have ever run articles either lamenting my fate at the hands of McCarthyite persecutors, or when I was the reviewer, making me feel important by claiming that I am part of such a conspiracy.

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Penguin waves

EmperorPenguin 2005 2592Over the weekend I was at workshop in Cornwall. It was mainly people from the Universities of Bristol and Bath, but they were a few people like me from further afield. It was in a very pretty village in Cornwall. During the Saturday lunch break we went for a stroll along a wooded river bank. It is the time of year that blue bells flower, and the fields of blue bells in the wood were beautiful.

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A post on drugs

Brains.Original.Sout.2012I am reading David Nutt’s book Drugs – Without the Hot Airwhich is excellent, although as I will get to later, my timing is not great. Incidentally, as he admits in the book, he is best known as the scientific advisor that the then Home Secretary Alan Johnson sacked a few years ago. He says a number of things in the book, but I can illustrate a key point he is making as follows. Consider two drugs: A and B. Large doses of A can kill you on the spot, it is responsible for damage to society on a huge scale, tens of thousands of deaths every year, and can be addictive. Drug B does not, even in very large doses, kill you directly, although it is harmful. It is also not addictive. If you tell you one of these in legal and the other illegal, can you guess which one is illegal?

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Did a Swedish statistician reveal the secret of a 100% germ free toilet bowl?

Bleach-bottleI guess we have all seen the ads for bleach that claim they kill 99% of germs dead. Maybe you have wondered about the other 1%? Killing the last 1% may be harder than you think. Naively you might think that bleach just kills bacteria, and that’s the end of it. But scientists working on bacteria like E. Coli have found that the individual bacteria are surprising diverse, in the following sense. Consider a population of millions of  E. Coli, and assume that they are all clones, i.e., are genetically identical. If they are all descendents of a single bacterium then this would be true. You might assume that these genetically identical clones would all behave identically, e.g., would all require the same dose of something nasty like bleach, to kill them.

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A molecular David slaying Goliath

The Cavendish Building of Homerton College Cambridge, May 2011At the start of this week I was at an excellent conference hosted in Cambridge’s Homerton College – the building where we had our meals is shown on the left. It was thoroughly enjoyable, and I learnt a lot. There were some superb talks. I thought the best was one by Prof David Klenerman. It was on the molecular and cell behaviour that underlies Alzheimer’s disease.

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No man e’er was glorious, who was not laborious

This is a quote from Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the United States, and a scientist. It is in The Triple Package by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld, two Yale law academics. It is an interesting book. Although it focuses mainly on a specific case, immigrants to the USA, it is kind of an argument for what you need to succeed. Where success is defined in material terms: a good job and lots of money. By this criterion I guess I am moderately successful. Being an academic is a professional job, and I am paid more than most, though sadly not as much as Yale law academics who write best-selling books.

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As a species we are shockingly bad at making decisions

Last night Lionel Messi advised me to shave with Gillette’s razor. This was in a TV ad, and was presumably in exchange for a lot more money than I will see this year. Rationally, there is no reason why I should accept advice on the best razor from a man just because he is astonishingly good at guiding a light spherical object past defenders and goalkeepers. Being good at football does not necessarily mean that you are a good judge of a quality razor, even if you are not being paid to recommend one. This marketing campaign is one of a huge number that exploit a weakness in our reasoning that is called the halo effect.

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After EU bureaucracy the science should be easy

Image A long time ago — back in mid-2010 when I was still in my thirties — I agree to join a colleague in the Department, Joe Keddie, in an EU consortium. This consortium finally become fully online this week. Its logo is above. It now even has a website! At times Joe and despaired of ever seeing it get off the ground. Years passed. I even got so annoyed with EU bureaucracy that I emailed all my local MEPs. I got only one prompt reply, from the office of the UKIP MEP Nigel Farage. It suggested the way to solve the problem was for the UK to leave the EU. As we would then no longer be eligible for the consortium this would solve the bureaucracy problem but only at the expense of not being able to join any of these consortia and so not being eligible for this research funding. So not very helpful.

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Stretching to lose weight

Slipstek AugeA number of factors contribute to whether you end up carrying some excess weight. Clearly too many cream buns, and too little exercise can contribute to you being a bit plump. But genes are also important. Some people are, due to their genes, a bit more prone to putting on weight than others.

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