May 10, 2012

The Lovelock Laboratory: A fantasy workplace in the West Country

έροτας : love, as described by an implicit heart curve (x²  + y²  − 1)³ − x² y³ = 0

An equation of love (x² + y² − 1)³ − x² y³ = 0

Former Mancunian James Lovelock runs the kind of a laboratory most scientists can only fantasise about working in as they grind through the humdrum bureaucracy of peer-review and never-ending grant applications. Lovelock is fortunate enough to run a completely independent, self-funded lab located in the beautiful West Country. There’s a fascinating interview with him on The Life Scientific with Jim Al-Khalili where he says lots of interesting things about elocution lessons, nuclear power, climate change and his grand theory of planet earth, Gaia [1,2,3]. When asked, he also made this interesting comment about being an indepedendent scientist [4]:

“It’s the most wonderful thing to do [being independent]. I keep on saying that scientists are just like artists if they are creative. If you were an artist, would you want to spend your life in an institute for fine art, quibbling with other academics about the different styles of painting? You’d rather be in your garage doing your masterpiece and selling a lot of art to some tourists to pay the way. That’s been my life as a scientist. ”

The audio file of the broadcast is available for download or just click on the play icon below:

So to become a truly independent scientist, you either need to win the lottery, nobel prize or possibly invent the modern equivalent of electron capture detection to bankroll running a lab from the bottom of your garden.

Well if nothing else, it’s an entertaining fantasy to while away dull moments in the real world…


  1. James Lovelock (2009). The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning ISBN:1846141850, Penguin
  2. Andrew Watson (2009). Final warning from a sceptical prophet: James Lovelock fears that humanity faces widespread death and mass migration as Earth’s systems become further unbalanced by climate change Nature, 458 (7241), 970-971 DOI: 10.1038/458970a
  3. John Gribbin and Mary Gribbin (2009) He Knew He Was Right: The Irrepressible Life of James Lovelock and Gaia, ISBN:1846140161, Allen Lane
  4. Matthew Reisz (2012) Free-range thinkers: Independent scholars can confound, complement and challenge the work of their campus counterparts. Times Higher Education

May 28, 2010

The University of Twitter, UK: A Quick Survey

Twitter icon for a fluid app by Miha  FilejMany people are still trying to work out exactly what twitter is good for [1] but with more than 100 million users worldwide making around 50 million tweets per day, the website is clearly popular with those who like to communicate via short “sound bites” of 140 characters or less.

Communication is an important part of what Universities are all about, so how many UK universities are on twitter? Knowing this could help us assess the use of the latest web technology in research where adoption has been rather limited so far, especially in Science  [2]. Rather than survey all the @UniversitiesUK, for a quick overview, let’s pick the twenty Russell Group Universities. According to their website, the Russell Group:

“represents the 20 leading UK universities which are committed to maintaining the very best research, an outstanding teaching and learning experience and unrivalled links with business and the public sector.”

So they are exactly the kind of places you would expect to be embracing and experimenting with new technology. The table below shows which of these institutions are on twitter:

@RussellGroup University @Twitter?
University of Birmingham @unibirmingham
University of Bristol @bristoluni
University of Cambridge @cambridge_uni
Cardiff University @cardiffuni
University of Edinburgh @uniofedinburgh
University of Glasgow @glasgowuni
Imperial College London @imperialcollege
King’s College London None as of May 2010*
University of Leeds @universityleeds
University of Liverpool @liverpoolfirst
London School of Economics None as of May 2010*
University of Manchester None as of May 2010*
Newcastle University None as of May 2010*
University of Nottingham @uniofnottingham
University of Oxford @uniofoxford
Queen’s University Belfast @queensubelfast
University of Sheffield @sheffielduni
University of Southampton @southamptonnews
University College London @uclnews
University of Warwick @warwickuni

There are plenty of important UK universities (@1994group, @UniAlliance@million_plus etc) excluded from this quick-and-dirty survey but it gives us an idea of what is going on. As of May 2010, 16 out of 20 Russell Group Universities are on twitter – perhaps this is another reason to love Higher Education because it is full of twittering twits?

But the last words on the United Kingdom of Twitter should go to the @number10gov Prime Minister David Cameron who has enlightening views on twitter including this quote below:

“We complain about the sound bite culture [3] but if you think about it and go back in history sound bites have always been used. Do to others as you would be done by, that is a fantastic sound bite … If you can’t convey what you’re trying to convey in a few short sentences you’ve got a problem and you have a particular problem in the media age. You have to work at communicating something complicated in a simple way or you’re not going to take people with you.”


  1. Haewoon Kwak, Changhyun Lee, Hosung Park, & Sue Moon (2010). What is Twitter, a social network or a news media? WWW ’10: Proceedings of the 19th international conference on World Wide Web, New York, NY, USA, 591-600 DOI: 10.1145/1772690.1772751
  2. Amy Maxmen (2010). Science Networking Gets Serious Cell, 141 (3), 387-389 DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2010.04.019
  3. David Slayden and Rita Kirk Whillock (1998). Soundbite Culture: The Death of Discourse in a Wired World. Sage Publications, Inc. ISBN:0761908722

* These Universities had no central account that I could find in May 2010 but some have departmental accounts like  @kingsbiomed, @kingsmedicine, @lsepublicevents, @lse_recruitment, @mcrmuseum and @manunicareers etc which are not counted here because they don’t represent the whole University in question. The University of Manchester has an account @UoMRSSFeed but it isn’t official and hasn’t been updated recently. Dear beloved Alma mater, sort it out!

[Creative commons licensed picture of Twitter icon for a fluid app via Miha Filej.]

March 12, 2009

Defrosting the Digital Seminar

The Lecture by James M ThorneCasey Bergman suggested it, Jean-Marc Schwartz organised it, so now I’m going to do it: a seminar on our Defrosting the Digital Library paper as part of the Bioinformatics and Functional Genomics seminar series. Here is the abstract of the talk:

After centuries with little change, scientific libraries have recently experienced massive upheaval. From being almost entirely paper-based, most libraries are now almost completely digital. This information revolution has all happened in less than 20 years and has created many novel opportunities and threats for scientists, publishers and libraries.

Today, we are struggling with an embarrassing wealth of digital knowledge on the Web. Most scientists access this knowledge through some kind of digital library, however these places can be cold, impersonal, isolated, and inaccessible places. Many libraries are still clinging to obsolete models of identity, attribution, contribution, citation and publication.

Based on a review published in PLoS Computational Biology, http://pubmed.gov/18974831 this talk will discuss the current chilly state of digital libraries for biologists, chemists and informaticians, including PubMed and Google Scholar. We highlight problems and solutions to the coupling and decoupling of publication data and metadata, with a tool called http://www.citeulike.org. This software tool exploits the Web to make digital libraries “warmer”: more personal, sociable, integrated, and accessible places.

Finally issues that will help or hinder the continued warming of libraries in the future, particularly the accurate identity of authors and their publications, are briefly introduced. These are discussed in the context of the BBSRC funded REFINE project, at the National Centre for Text Mining (NaCTeM.ac.uk), which is linking biochemical pathway data with evidence for pathways from the PubMed database.

Date: Monday 16th March 2008, Time: 12.00 midday, Location: Michael Smith Building, Main lecture theatre, Faculty of Life Sciences, University of Manchester (number 71 on google map of the Manchester campus). Please come along if you are interested…

[CC licensed picture above, "The Lecture" at Speakers Corner by James M Thorne]

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