December 22, 2010

Happy Christmas Lectures 2010

Mark Miodownik by Joe Dunckley, on FlickrAs Tom Lehrer once sang on his christmas carol:

“Christmas time is here, by golly,
Disapproval would be folly,
Deck the halls with hunks of holly,
Fill the cup and don’t say ‘when.’
Kill the turkeys, ducks and chickens,
Mix the punch, drag out the Dickens,
Even though the prospect sickens,
Brother, here we go again…”

Which must mean it’s also time for another seasonal tradition: the Royal Institution Christmas lectures. This year they are being given by the materials scientist and engineer Mark Miodownik with the title “Size Matters“. After nearly a decade in the wilderness of More4 and Channel 5 and elsewhere, this year the lectures will be back with the BBC broadcast on the 28th, 29th and 30th December at 8.00pm (also subsequently on iPlayer). Topics this year include:

  1. Why elephants can’t dance (but hamsters can skydive) see “crash test pets” video below.
  2. Why chocolate melts and jet planes don’t – chocolate is “one of the most sophisticated and highly engineered materials on the planet”!
  3. Why mountains are so small (Yes, small) – how rocks behave like liquid.

Mark has a reputation for being an entertaining and passionate [1] speaker, who unlike some previous lecturers – likes to improvise without a script which will probably make for lively and educational viewing.

Where ever you are this winterval, have a happy holiday.


  1. Mark Miodownik (2005). Facts not opinions? Developing both the physical and aesthetic properties of materials Nature Materials, 4 (7), 506-508 DOI: 10.1038/nmat1416

[Creative commons licensed picture of Mark Miodownik at the Science is Vital rally earlier this year in London by Joe Dunckley]

December 17, 2010

Planet Facebook

Whatever your views on Facebook [1], you can’t deny that from space, “Planet Facebook” looks rather intriguing. The wonderful diagram below of Facebook connections has been made by Paul Butler. Even miserable Facebook refuseniks (like me) can’t help but go “ooh that’s pretty” while marvelling at the masterful use of the R language to construct this beautiful map…

Planet Facebook / Planet Earth by Paul Butler


  1. John H. Tucker (2010). Status update: “I’m so glamorous”. A study of facebook users shows how narcissism and low self-esteem can be interrelated. Scientific American, 303 (5) PMID: 21033279, see also original research by Soraya Mehdizadeh at DOI:10.1089/cyber.2009.0257

December 8, 2010

Science Careers: The Good, the Bad and the Starry

Filed under: education,web of science — Duncan Hull @ 6:03 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

Mauna Kea SunsetOf all the things you can do with a Science degree, being paid money to stargaze from the top of a volcano in Hawaiʻi has to be one of the more interesting.

Tom Kerr is one such lucky astronomer who has been managing operations at UKIRT (UK infrared telescope) – currently the world’s largest telescope dedicated solely to infrared astronomy [1]. So what is it like working more than 4000 metres* above sea level, near the summit of Mauna Kea on the big Island of Hawaiʻi? Can you imagine filling your days and nights  observing the glorious majesty of the night sky, amazing sunsets and sunrises interspersed with surfing sessions on the beach?

Tom’s blog A Pacific View documents what Hawaiian life can be like. A recent post things I’ll miss (and others I won’t) describes the good, bad and starry parts of astronomy in an exotic location. There is also an accompanying set of rather stunning pictures on Flickr. So if you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be involved in stargazing for a living, Tom’s blog and photostream tells you more.


  1. Song, I., McCombie, J., Kerr, T., & Sarre, P. (2007). The 3.3-μm PAH emission band of the Red Rectangle Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 380 (3), 979-985 DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2966.2007.12197.x and arXiv:0707.0541
  2. The interwebs is full of blogging astronomers

[Creative Commons image of Mauna Kea Sunset by therefromhere, on Flickr]
*4000 metres is about 14,000 feet in real money…

November 12, 2010

The Infinite Professor Theorem

Filed under: funny — Duncan Hull @ 10:15 pm
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Prof Brian Cox by greyhawk68 on FlickrIf you took an infinite number of Professors, added some comedians, recording studios (instead of typewriters) and got them to record random radio shows you might just end up with a program like the Infinite Monkey Cage.

After a brief break, Physicist Brian Cox (pictured on the right with the sun shining out of his behind) and Robin Ince return for a third series of their phunny physics show which takes a “witty, irreverent look at the world according to science”. The next program will be broadcast Monday 15th November on BBC Radio 4 at 4.30pm and is available as a podcast too. Worth tuning into if you like your science comical, physical and audial.

[Creative Commons licensed picture of Brian Cox by John Roling (greyhawk68)]

November 2, 2010

Standing on the shoulders of tyrants

Newton (after Blake), by Eduardo Paolozzi, British Library Piazza by chrisjohnbeckett on Flickr.There are at least two ways of looking at the history of Science:

  1. If we have seen farther it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.
  2. If we have seen farther it is by standing on the shoulders of tyrants.

Take Isaac Newton for example, a giant whose shoulders we all stand on today. During his scientific career he employed plenty of tyranny to get ahead. While devising his calculus Newton had a bitter rivalry with his contemporary Leibniz where he exploited his position of power and influence at the Royal Society [1] to discredit his opponents work. Newton was evidently no gentle giant.

Over at the BBC, Marcus du Sautoy charts some of this murky political territory in the first episode of his entertaining Brief History of Mathematics series. The rest of the programmes introduce some of the other colourful personalities involved in the history of “the queen of the sciences”.

So if Newton is anything to go by, many of the giants shoulders we stand on were (and are) terrible tyrants. While friendly and open collaboration is important in Science, cut-throat competition clearly has a place too.


  1. Isaac Newton (1671). A Letter of Mr. Isaac Newton, Professor of the Mathematicks in the University of Cambridge; Containing His New Theory about Light and Colors: Sent by the Author to the Publisher from Cambridge, Febr. 6. 1671/72; In Order to be Communicated to the R. Socie Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 6 (69-80), 3075-3087 DOI: 10.1098/rstl.1671.0072

[Creative Commons licensed picture of Isaac Newton (after William Blake), by Eduardo Paolozzi, British Library Piazza by Chris John Beckett on Flickr]

September 3, 2010

What happens when you teach monkeys to use money?

Capuchin Monkey by Michael RansburgFreakonomics and its successor Superfreakonomics are two books by the economist Steven Levitt and his partner in crime Stephen Dubner that have a common theme running through them (quote):

“People respond to incentives, although not necessarily in ways that are predictable and manifest. Therefore, one of the most powerful laws in the universe is the law of unintended consequences.”

Both books give numerous and often amusing examples of the ways that various incentives often result in unexpected outcomes. They choose a wide variety of animals including teachers, sumo wrestlers, estate agents, bible salesmen and yes, monkeys, to illustrate this point. The second book, Superfreakonomics, finishes with a fascinating epilogue about the consequences of training monkeys to use money, aka “monkeynomics”. When capuchin monkeys (Cebus apella) are trained to exchange money for food, they don’t always behave very rationally [1]. The TED talk about how monkeys mirror human irrationality by the primate psychologist Laurie Santos has more details, see below:

In short, financially trained monkeys make many of the same mistakes (like loss aversionlarceny and endowment effects) that humans do. This research suggests that millions of years of evolution have configured our brains to help us make stupid irrational mistakes, at least when it comes to money. Which provides a great excuse for financial incompetence, whatever kind of animal you are.

If you haven’t already seen the books, they are worth reading and if you’re interested in how investment bankers, capuchin monkeys and other animals make irrational mistakes watch the TED video above.


  1. Lakshminaryanan, V., Chen, M., & Santos, L. (2008). Endowment effect in capuchin monkeys Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 363 (1511), 3837-3844 DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2008.0149

[Creative Commons licensed picture of a Capuchin monkey by Michael Ransburg]

September 1, 2010

How many unique papers are there in Mendeley?

Lex Macho Inc. by Dan DeChiaro on Flickr, How many people in this picture?Mendeley is a handy piece of desktop and web software for managing and sharing research papers [1]. This popular tool has been getting a lot of attention lately, and with some impressive statistics it’s not difficult to see why. At the time of writing Mendeley claims to have over 36 million papers, added by just under half a million users working at more than 10,000 research institutions around the world. That’s impressive considering the startup company behind it have only been going for a few years. The major established commercial players in the field of bibliographic databases (WoK and Scopus) currently have around 40 million documents, so if Mendeley continues to grow at this rate, they’ll be more popular than Jesus (and Elsevier and Thomson) before you can say “bibliography”. But to get a real handle on how big Mendeley is we need to know how many of those 36 million documents are unique because if there are lots of duplicated documents then it will affect the overall head count. (more…)

July 27, 2010

Twenty million papers in PubMed: a triumph or a tragedy?

pubmed.govA quick search on pubmed.gov today reveals that the freely available American database of biomedical literature has just passed the 20 million citations mark*. Should we celebrate or commiserate passing this landmark figure? Is it a triumph or a tragedy that PubMed® is the size it is? (more…)

July 26, 2010

Please Sir, I want some more Science!

Science Online London 2010 (soloconf)Science Online London (#solo10 September 3-4, 2010) is an annual gathering of people interested in the use of web technologies for scientific collaboration and communication.  The organisers at Mendeley, Nature Network and The British Library continue to do a great job of hosting this important gathering, now in its third year:

I’ve been the last two years (2008 and 2009), and it has been worth attending because of the mix speakers, delegates and topics covered. This year includes talks from:

See the impressive full programme here. Reading through the speaker list I wondered, where are all the scientists at science online this year? At the time of writing this, 12 of the 13 speakers are politicians, publishers or journalists with scientist Peter Murray-Rust the odd man out. I’ve nothing against politicians, publishers or journalists but it would be great to have a more balanced event this year. The UK is full of high-profile scientists with blogs who would probably jump at the opportunity to speak at this event. So:

Or as the skeptical Sid Rodrigues said “this looks like fun, needs more nerds though“…

July 15, 2010

How many journal articles have been published (ever)?

Fifty Million and Fifty Billion by ZeroOne

According to some estimates, there are fifty million articles in existence as of 2010. Picture of a fifty million dollar note by ZeroOne on Flickr.

Earlier this year, the scientific journal PLoS ONE published their 10,000th article. Ten thousand articles is a lot of papers especially when you consider that PLoS ONE only started publishing four short years ago in 2006. But scientists have been publishing in journals for at least 350 years [1] so it might make you wonder, how many articles have been published in scientific and learned journals since time began?

If we look at PubMed Central, a full-text archive of journals freely available to all – PubMedCentral currently holds over 1.7 million articles. But these articles are only a tiny fraction of the total literature – since a lot of the rest is locked up behind publishers paywalls and is inaccessible to many people. (more…)

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