May 24, 2012

Physics or Stamp Collecting? Let’s hear it for the Stamp Collectors

An old stamp collection by DigitalTribes on Flickr

Are you a Physicist or a Stamp Collector? Creative commons licensed image via DigitalTribes on Flickr.

The Life Scientific is a series of interviews by Jim Al-Khalili of high profile scientists. It’s a bit like Desert Island Discs without the music and with more interesting guests. If you missed them on the radio, you can download the lot as a podcast. Here’s a good example of an interview with John Sulston on the Physics vs. Stamp Collecting debate [1].

Jim Al-Khalili:

“There’s this wonderful, I’m sure you’ve heard it, Lord Rutherford’s tongue in cheek quote that all science is either physics or stamp collecting. Very rude, very insulting of course and it was applying to the way 19th Century naturalists would classify the world around them. What you were doing was a similar sort of thing but down at the level of individual cells.”

John Sulston:

“Yes I mean I am a stamp collector by that definition and I freely admit that, that’s why…”

Jim Al-Khalili:

“I don’t want to be insulting.”

John Sulston:

“No, no, no it’s not insulting in the least, I am a stamp collector but stamp collecting with a purpose, I don’t want to collect all stamps, I like collecting stamps that people are going to use. So I collect patterns perhaps is what I do. And I make maps that other people can use for their own work and that’s true of the cell, and it’s true of the genome, and I think that’s my role, I don’t think I’m a very intellectual person but I certainly can through a sort of obsession and loving of sort of completeness make a map that other people find valuable. Whereas other people previously had only done little tiny bits of it, which weren’t joined up, so I had to do the joining up, that’s very appealing to me. But it works – it wouldn’t work at all if you were off on your own – that’s why the stamp collector thing is used in a pejorative sense because it means somebody all by themselves just obsessively collecting stamps but if you bring a map out and it becomes the basis for a lot of other people’s work, like my maps have, then it’s entirely different.”

So let’s hear it for the stamp collectors, aka the “other scientists”. They no longer have to live in the shadow of Ernest Rutherford‘s jokey insult about their physics envy.


  1. Birks, J.B. (1962) Rutherford at Manchester OCLC:490736835
  2. Ihde, A. (1964). Rutherford at Manchester (Birks, J. B., ed.) Journal of Chemical Education, 41 (11) DOI: 10.1021/ed041pA896
  3. Birks, J., & Segrè, E. (1963). Rutherford at Manchester Physics Today, 16 (12) DOI: 10.1063/1.3050668
  4. Goldhammer, P. (1963). Rutherford at Manchester. J. B. Birks, Ed. Heywood, London, 1962; Benjamon, New York, 1963. x + 364 pp. Illus. $ 12.50 Science, 142 (3594), 943-944 DOI: 10.1126/science.142.3594.943-a

April 2, 2009

Upcoming Gig: Science Foo Camp (scifoo) 2009

Google Classic: Please Allow 30 Days for your Search ResultsIn my inbox this morning, an intriguing email from Timo Hannay, Tim O’Reilly and Chris DiBona:


We’d like to invite you to join us for Science Foo Camp (or “Sci Foo”), a unique, invitation-only gathering organized by Nature, O’Reilly Media, and Google, and hosted at the Googleplex in Mountain View, California.

Now in its fourth year, Sci Foo is achieving cult status among those with a passion for science and technology. Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek wrote of last year’s event:

“SciFoo is a conference like no other. It brings together a mad mix from the worlds of science, technology, and other branches of the ineffable Third Culture at the Google campus in Mountain View. Improvised, loose, massively parallel–it’s a happening. If you’re not overwhelmed by the rush of ideas then you’re not paying attention.”

As before, we will be inviting about 200 people from around the world who are doing groundbreaking work in diverse areas of science and technology. Participants will include not only researchers, but also writers, educators, artists, policy makers, investors, and other thought leaders.

The format is highly informal: all delegates are also presenters and demonstrators; the schedule is determined collaboratively on the first evening; and sessions continue to be organized and re-organized throughout the weekend. This creates a unique opportunity to explore topics that transcend traditional boundaries, and discussions are of a kind that happens at the best conferences during breaks and late into the night. Of course, there will also be time to have fun and relax at Google’s legendary campus.

Sci Foo 2009 will run from about 6pm on Friday, July 10 until after lunch on Sunday, July 12. Campers need to make their own way to and from the event, but Google will provide accommodation and meals, and there is no registration fee. For those who don’t have cars, there will also be free shuttle buses between the hotel and the Googleplex.

Please RSVP  etc

We hope to see you at the Googleplex in July!

Tim O’Reilly, O’Reilly Media
Chris DiBona, Google
Timo Hannay, Nature

About Nature Publishing Group

Nature Publishing Group (NPG) is dedicated to serving the information and communication needs of scientists and medics. NPG’s flagship title, Nature, first published in 1869, has now been joined by over 80 other titles, among them the Nature research journals, Nature Reviews, Nature Clinical Practice and a range of prestigious academic journals including society-owned publications. It also operates the leading scientific website, Nature.com, and a range of innovative online services, from databases to collaboration tools and podcasts.

About O’Reilly Media

O’Reilly Media spreads the knowledge of innovators through its books, online services, magazines, and conferences. Since 1978, O’Reilly has been a chronicler and catalyst of leading-edge development, homing in on the technology trends that really matter and spurring their adoption by amplifying “faint signals” from the alpha geeks who are creating the future. Whether it’s delivered in print, online, or in person, everything O’Reilly produces reflects the company’s unshakeable belief in the power of information to spur innovation. An active participant in the technology community, the company has a long history of advocacy, meme-making, and evangelism.

About Google Inc.

Google’s Philosophy – Never settle for the best “The perfect search engine,” says Google co-founder Larry Page, “would understand exactly what you mean and give back exactly what you want.” Given the state of search technology today, that’s a far-reaching vision requiring research, development, and innovation to realize. Google is committed to blazing that trail. Though acknowledged as the world’s leading search technology company, Google’s goal is to provide a much higher level of service to all those who seek information, whether they’re at a desk in Boston, driving through Bonn, or strolling in Bangkok.

About Foo Camps

The “Foo Camp” meeting format has been pioneered by O’Reilly (see when geeks go camping). In this context, “Foo” originally stood for “Friends Of O’Reilly“, but it is also a meaningless ‘placeholder word’ commonly used by computer programmers, rather like the term ‘X’ in algebra. The success of O’Reilly’s original technology Foo Camps has stimulated a wide range of similar events, from Science Foo Camp to Disney’s Pooh Camp.

Obviously I’m thrilled to bits to receive such an email, I’ve been to scifoo once before and it was a fantastic mind-blowing experience. This time, I’m invited as a consolation prize for being a runner-up in the international science blogging challenge 2009 which challenged younger scientists to get a senior scientist to blog. I managed to convince Douglas Kell and David DeRoure to start blogs, so thanks are due to them for entering into the spirit of the competition. This year, the first prize was won by Russ Altman and Shirley Wu at Stanford University, congratulations Shirley and Russ, it will be good to compare scientific blogging notes with you both.

Now, it would have been good to win this prize, but the invite above is probably one of the best runner-up prizes I’ve ever had. Thanks are due to the competition judges Cameron Neylon, Peter Murray-Rust and Richard P. Grant for organising the competition. Thanks also to Tim O’Reilly, Timo Hannay and Chris DiBona, see you in the Googleplex!

[More commentary on this post over at friendfeed]

February 20, 2009

Mistaken Identity: Google thinks I’m Maurice Wilkins

Who's afraid of Google?In a curious case of mistaken identity, Google seems to think I’m Maurice Wilkins. Here is how. If you Google the words DNA and mania (google.com/search?q=dna+mania) one of the first results is a tongue-in-cheek article I wrote two years ago about our obsession with Deoxyribonucleic Acid. Now Google (or more precisely Googlebot) seems to think this article is written by one M Wilkins. That’s M Wilkins as in the physicist Maurice Wilkins, the third man of the double helix (after Watson and Crick) and Nobel prize winner back in ’62. How could such a silly (but amusing) mistake be made? Because the article is about what Wilkins once said, but not actually by Wilkins. Computers can’t tell the difference between these two things. Consequently, it has been known for some time that Google Scholar has many other mistaken identities for authors like this. Scholar even thinks there is an author called Professor Forgotten Password (a prolific author who has been widely cited in many fields)!

The other curiosity is this, the original post on nodalpoint.org is also counted as a citation in Google Scholar too. It’s a bit of a mystery how scholar actually works, what it includes (and excludes) and how big it is, but you’ll find the article counted as a proper citation for a book about genes. Scientific spammers must be licking their lips with the opportunity to influence results and citation counts, with humble blog posts, rather than more kosher articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

So what does this all this curious interweb mischief tell us?

  1. Identifying people on the web is a tricky business, more complex than most people think
  2. Googlebot needs to have its algowithms tweaked by those Google Scholars at the Googleplex. Not really surprising, what else did you expect from Beta software? (P.S. Googlebot, when you read this, I’m not Maurice Wilkins, that’s not my name. I haven’t won a Nobel prize either.  I’m sort of flattered that you’ve mistaken me for such a distinguished scientist, so I’ll enjoy my alternative identity while it lasts.)
  3. Blogs are increasingly part of the scientific conversation, counted in various bibliometrics, will Google Scholar (and the rest) start indexing other blogs too? Where will this trend leave more conventional bibliometrics like the impact factor?

(Note: These search results were correct at the time of writing, but may change over time, results preserved for posterity on flickr)


  1. Maurice Wilkins (2003) The Third Man of the Double Helix: The Autobiography of Maurice Wilkins isbn:0198606656
  2. Péter Jacsó (2008) Savvy searching – Google Scholar revisited. Online Information Review 32: 102-11 DOI:10.1108/14684520810866010 (see also Defrosting the Digital Library)
  3. Douglas Kell (2008) What’s in a name? Guest, ghost and indeed quite imaginary authorships BBSRC blogs
  4. Neil R. Smalheiser and Vetle I. Torvik Author Name Disambiguation (This is a preprint version of a chapter published in Volume 43 (2009) of the Annual Review of Information Science and Technology (ARIST) (B. Cronin, Ed.) which is available from the publisher Information Today, Inc (http://books.infotoday.com/asist/#arist).
  5. Duncan Hull (2007) DNA mania. Nodalpoint.org
  6. Jules De Martino and Katie White (2008) That’s not my name (video)

September 12, 2008

Blogging Professors: Big Boffins with Blogs

Jeffrey Bates by Julian CashI’ve been hunting all over the interweb looking for Professors that have blogs. While it would be a good thing if there were more, (see the science blogging challenge 2008), there are surprising amount of big boffins that already blog. I should say that by big, I mean (full) professor. By boffin I mean a person practicing science including biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, engineering and hell, even computer “science” and the “dismal science” of economics too. By blog I mean, a web-log or a lab-log which is personal, frequently updated (with web feed) and allows comments. Here is my collection of big boffins with blogs, with a little help from friendfeed.com [1]. It is ordered alphabetically by surname and I hope it gives a flavour of some of the bloggers out there on the Web. If you know any more, please let me know. (more…)

September 4, 2008

Famous for fifteen people

Marilyn Monroe by Andy Warhol (and oddsock)The artist Andy Warhol once said:

“In the future everybody will be world famous for fifteen minutes”.

This well worn saying has been quoted and misquoted in hundreds of different ways in the forty years since Warhol first coined it [1].

Bad Scientist Ben Goldacre, in his keynote speech* at Science Blogging (sciblog) 2008, highlighted one of these deliberate misquotes, which he attributed to NTK.net (Need To Know: Britain’s most sarcastic high-tech weekly newsletter). It goes a little something like this:

“On the internet everybody can be world famous for fifteen people“.

This wonderful expression captures the nature and scale of science blogging on the internet today in a nutshell. Personally, I think it also sums up much of the spirit of the Science Blogging 2008 conference as well. In total, around eight groups of fifteen people, attended the conference. It was physically impossible to talk to all of them in one day, especially since I had to slink off early at 7pm, but I did manage to meet the following people: (more…)

July 4, 2008

Who Owns Science?

Padlock and Key picture by Imagined RealityThis thing called Science, whatever it is, who actually owns it? Scientists? Technology companies? Industrial Biotechnology and Pharmaceutical companies? Investors? Shareholders? Governments? Universities? Philanthropists? Charities? Publishers? Joe Public? Or none of the above…?

  1. The Scientists. At the front line of any scientific discovery is a scientist, from the lofty heights of the hallowed Professor to the lowly lab-rat or student, slaving away at the bench, scientists work on the front line Science. For most scientists, they make a living from their inventions, ideas and discoveries that they own. Science is their livelihood, © The Author(s).
  2. (more…)

March 18, 2008

Genomes to Systems 2008: Day One

Filed under: sysbio — Duncan Hull @ 9:27 am
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Genomes to Systems is a biannual conference held in Manchester covering the latest post-genome developments. Here are some brief and incomplete notes on some of the speakers and topics from day one of the 2008 conference. (more…)

August 6, 2007

Scifoo day three: Genome Voyeurism with Lincoln Stein

On day three of Science Foo Camp (scifoo) biologist Lincoln Stein (picture right) gave a presenation on what he calls “genome voyeurism”, using Jim Watsons genome as an example. This session demonsrated the current and future possibilities of individuals having their own DNA sequenced, what has been called “personal genomics“.

Unlike the session on genomics yesterday on day two, where George Church, Eric Lander, 23andme, Sergey and Larry (and even Sergey’s pet dog) are all present, today they are conspicuously absent.

Lincolns presentation starts with a video (see youtube video below) of Jim Watson receiving his genome on a disk from Baylor College of Medicine, Houston. Lincoln tells how Jim puts his genome (stored on a hard drive) next to his Nobel prize medallion in his office. After all the press publicity, Jim deposits the data in GenBank, and it becomes available worldwide. (more…)

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