April 15, 2021

I wish I’d read this book when I was doing my PhD!

Anyone for a game of PhD bingo?

Published this year by Oxford University Press, How to Get Your PhD: A Handbook for the Journey by Gavin Brown [1] is essential reading for anyone thinking of doing, or trying to get through, a PhD. I wish I’d had this book when I was doing mine, here’s why:

I thoroughly enjoyed my PhD and given the chance I’d do it all again. I was lucky to be able to do research guided by a great supervisor (Robert Stevens) and it was rewarding being part of a big and friendly lab. There were loads of opportunities to get involved in all sorts of other projects along the way. Thankfully, I also had some good mentors and met tonnes of interesting people from all over the world. I am very grateful to Robert, Carole Goble and everyone else who made it possible.

Despite all the good stuff, there’s plenty I could have done better. Hindsight is a great teacher. Gavin’s book would have helped me do a better PhD but hadn’t been written at that time – I wish it had been. I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was younger. [2]

Alongside serious technical advice on the mechanics of doing a PhD, Gavin’s book provides a good overview of some the psychological and emotional hurdles every PhD will encounter. Unlike a lot of similar books (there’s already tonnes of self-help PhD guides out there), this one is written in first person singular which makes for a more engaging and shorter read. Serious advice is balanced by the books light hearted tone, with plenty of humour, such as the game of PhD Bingo, shown in the picture on the right. Like most students, I ticked all those boxes (BINGO!) apart from the “you will read this book” box. Don’t be that person, Read The Friendly Manual! RTFM. Read THIS Friendly Manual!

The handbook also includes personal stories which help get key messages across, not just from Gavin, but a distinguished bunch of scientists, engineers and mathematicians who have contributed to the second part of the book including Nancy RothwellVictoria BurnsSteve FurberLucy KissickHiranya PeirisMelanie LengJeremy WyattDavid HandCarolyn VircaShakir MohamedJonny Brooks-Bartlett and Jennifer Polk.

So if you’re wondering about doing a PhD, or you’re currently doing one, go and read Gavins book. I’m not just saying that because (disclaimer) Gavin is a colleague of mine. I’m saying that because I wish this book had existed back when I did my PhD. It’s packed full of sound advice and I heartily recommend you read it!


  1. Brown, Gavin (2021) How to Get Your PhD: A Handbook for the Journey, Oxford University Press, ISBN:9780198866923
  2. Lane, Ronnie and Wood, Ronnie (1973) “Ooh La La.” In Ooh La La. The Faces. “I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was younger…”

March 22, 2021

Thank you NHS 🙏

During an average lifetime, the human heart will beat more than 2.5 billion times. Amazing that it works at all, frankly. Computer generated cross section 3D model of the human heart via Wikimedia Commons by DrJanaOfficial at w.wiki/36zc

So what happened was, I’d been having some chest pains for a while and sleeping badly but didn’t think too much of it. Like many parents, we were struggling to balance the competing demands of two full-time jobs with an extra one called homeschooling small children. [1] It was stressful but we were trying, as you do in a pandemic, to get through it one day at a time. My wearable technology reckoned my resting heart rate was higher than it normally was. Not surprising really. I’m no athlete but try to look after my physical and mental health. Thanks to parkrun, I’ve rediscovered running and have continued to run 5km or 10km every other day in order to stay fit, sane and get out of the house during lockdown. I never expected my heart would give me problems.

One night as I was getting ready for bed, I started having palpatations and my heart rate accelerated like Usain Bolt hearing a cardiac starting pistol. As I lay down, I felt short of breath and dizzy and watched my heart rate soar. So I phoned the National Health Service support line (NHS 111) who quickly told me to get down to my local Accident and Emergency (A&E) sharpish.

As a passenger on the drive to hospital I wondered if I was having (or had I had) some kind of heart attack? WTF? I seriously wondered if my time was up. OMG. On arriving at the hospital, a well organised team of people dealt with me efficiently and with a minimum of fuss:

  • The A&E receptionist took my details, told me to sit the in big red chair labelled emergency electrocardiogram / elektro kardiogramm (ECG)
  • The nurses did an electrocardiogram, before my bottom even had a chance to park itself on the big red chair
  • The A&E nurses plastered me with electrodes and hooked me up to one of those beeping heart rate monitors like they have on hospital dramas. Beep beep beep…
  • The X-ray operator zapped me with high energy electromagnetic radiation
  • The nurse swabbed me for viral infections (ouch!) – “Your heart is swollen and its probably caused by a virus”… you mean coronavirus? … “we’re trying to find out”
  • The nurses took samples of blood, monitored my blood pressure, heart rate, oxygen saturation levels through the night and day
  • The hospital porters ferried me around between destinations on a wheelie-bed
  • The medical staff ran the Acute Medical Unit (AMU) where I was transferred to for the rest of the night (which was long, dark and sleepless) and the following day
  • The stream of junior and senior doctors came to examine, question and diagnose me
  • The catering staff served me breakfast, lunch and dinner
  • The nurses re-assured and comforted me through the night
  • The cardiologist interrogated me, outlined the prognosis and discharged me
  • The pharmacist gave me a big bag of drugs to enjoy from the comfort of my own home 💊💊💊

Hospitals can be scary places. What makes them even scarier at the moment is that you’re not allowed visitors because of social distancing. This means when you arrive at A&E you wave goodbye to your family wondering if you’ll see them again. You can phone them thankfully, but they aren’t allowed in the hospital.

Making the hospital less scary was an expert team of dedicated professionals. It was a barrage of names. I can only remember one of them: Theresa. Thanks Theresa and the rest of the team to Stepping Hill hospital. It is reassuring to know that medical staff like you are doing their jobs under challenging circumstances, despite the risks of infecting yourselves and your families.

It’s reassuring that when so many things in society feel like they need reinventing or fixing, that hospitals keep functioning normally. While education, high street retail, the internet, politics, the performing arts, culture and pretty much everything in society struggles with the pandemic, there is one thing that’s working well without any fuss or fanfare. A&E departments. Possibly the only thing I’ve interacted with in the last year that hasn’t felt a bit broken, compromised or vulnerable.

It was a sobering experience in the Acute Medical Unit. People in my part of the AMU had all experienced “cardiac events” of some kind or other. Some people didn’t make it through that long night to see the light of day. So:

  • I’m glad to be here
  • I’m glad to be alive
  • I’m glad the NHS works

Thank you NHS! 🙏


  1. Anon (2021) Covid home-schooling: Parents’ ‘nightmare’ juggling work and teaching BBC News, London

February 24, 2021

Join us to discuss teaching social responsibility and justice in Computer Science on Monday 1st March at 2pm GMT

Scales of justice icon made by monkik from flaticon.com

With great power comes great responsibility. [1] Given their growing power in the twenty-first century, computer scientists have a duty to society to use that power responsibly and justly. How can we teach this kind of social responsibility and ethics to engineering students? Join us to discuss teaching social justice in computer science via a paper by Rodrigo Ferreira and Moshe Vardi at Rice University in Houston, Texas published in the sigcse2021.sigcse.org conference [2]. From the abstract of the preprint:

As ethical questions around the development of contemporary computer technologies have become an increasing point of public and political concern, computer science departments in universities around the world have placed renewed emphasis on tech ethics undergraduate classes as a means to educate students on the large scale social implications of their actions. Committed to the idea that tech ethics is an essential part of the undergraduate computer science educational curriculum, at Rice University this year we piloted a redesigned version of our Ethics and Accountability in Computer Science class. This effort represents our first attempt at implementing a “deep” tech ethics approach to the course.

Incorporating elements from philosophy of technology, critical media theory, and science and technology studies, we encouraged students to learn not only ethics in a “shallow” sense, examining abstract principles or values to determine right and wrong, but rather looking at a series of “deeper” questions more closely related to present issues of social justice and relying on a structural understanding of these problems to develop potential socio-technical solutions. In this article, we report on our implementation of this redesigned approach. We describe in detail the rationale and strategy for implementing this approach, present key elements of the redesigned syllabus, and discuss final student reflections and course evaluations. To conclude, we examine course achievements, limitations, and lessons learned toward the future, particularly in regard to the number escalating social protests and issues involving Covid-19.

This paper got me thinking:

Houston, we’ve had your problem!

After paging the authors in Houston with the message above there was initial radio silence.

Beep - beep - beep [white noise] Beep - beep - beep...

Hello Manchester, this is Houston, Can we join you?

So we’re delighted to be joined LIVE by the authors of the paper Rodrigo Ferreira and Moshe Vardi from Houston, Texas. They’ll give a lightning talk outlining the paper before we discuss it together in smaller break out groups.

Their paper describes a problem everyone in the world has had in teaching ethics in Computer Science recently. How can we make computing more ethical?

All welcome. As usual, we’ll be meeting on zoom, see sigcse.cs.manchester.ac.uk/join-us for details.


  1. Spider-Man (1962) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/With_great_power_comes_great_responsibility
  2. Rodrigo Ferreira and Moshe Vardi (2021) Deep Tech Ethics An Approach to Teaching Social Justice in Computer Science in Proceedings of the 52nd ACM Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education (SIGCSE ’21), March 13–20, 2021, Virtual Event, USA. ACM, New York, NY, USA. DOI:10.1145/3408877.3432449
  3. Jack Swigert (1970) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Houston,_we_have_a_problem

January 27, 2020

Seven things to do at CERN if you’re not a Physicist


Wandering the Immeasurable: A sculpture at CERN by Gayle Hermick, picture re-used with permission from the artist

Even if you’re not a Physicist, there is plenty to see and do above and below ground at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). Home to the worlds largest experiment on what is arguably the worlds largest machine near Geneva in Switzerland, CERN is a very inspiring place to visit. Consequently, CERN and the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) feature in many guidebooks like The Geek Atlas [1], the Atlas Obscura, Lonely Planet and Tripadvisor.com. So what can you actually see and do at CERN?

  1. Get a well paid engineering job. Good news for engineers, there are loads of jobs at CERN. What better way to explore a place than to work there? If you’re a student see careers.cern/students for details on summer internships and year long technical student programs. If you have already graduated, take a look at the CERN Fellowships and the doctoral student program. There are also plenty of opportunities for more experienced engineers described at careers.cern/professionals too. CERN’s mission is to “unite people from all over the world to push the frontiers of science and technology, for the benefit of all”. Part of that means providing opportunities for people from CERN’s 23 member states to learn new skills at CERN and take them back to their home country. For every research physicist at CERN, there are ten engineers. [2] To run their experiments, physicists rely on massive, novel and a very precise network of machines made with millions of parts, both moving and stationary. You need an army of engineers to build, test, run and develop such a complex machine, for example:
    • Mechanical engineers develop heating & cooling systems and mechatronics (there are quite a few robots at CERN)
    • Materials engineers test novel materials, metals, magnets, microscopes, superconductors, vacuums, X-ray diffraction and apply radiochemistry
    • Software and hardware engineers develop applications, virtualised infrastructure, distributed computing and databases using a wide range of programming and scripting languages. These applications manage data in one of the most highly demanding computing environments in the research world
    • Electrical and electronic engineers work on energy distribution, signal processing, microelectronics and radio frequency technology
    • Civil engineers and geotechnical engineers develop structures, roads, drainage, both above (and under) ground to accommodate all of the above
    • There are non-engineering jobs too, in administration careers.cern/AdminStudent-projects and Applied Physics (obviously)

So CERN is full of engineers of every flavour. But if you’re not a physicist or an engineer looking for a job, there is still plenty to see and do. So let’s reboot our listicle again: seven things to do at CERN if you’re not a physicist, an engineer or job seeker:

  1. Watch cosmic rays arrive from outer space: There are two permanent exhibitions which can be visited without booking and they both have free entry. One is housed in the aesthetically pleasing Globe of Science and Innovation (GoSI) and is called the Universe of Particles. Another is opposite the GoSI and called Microcosm. There’s plenty to see in both exhibits, including film projections, spark chambers showing cosmic rays and cloud chambers which allow you to visualise ionizing radiation.
  2. Wander the Immeasurable with Gayle Hermick: Right outside the GoSI, sits an impressive sculpture made of 15 tonnes of twisted steel, stretched out over 37 metres in length and 11 metres up into the air. Covered in mathematical equations describing physical laws, the sculpture tells the story of Physics from Mesopotamia and Ancient Greece up to present day Higgs Boson and beyond. It’s a beautiful work of art to contemplate by Gayle Hermick. Having been inspired by equations the next thing you need to do is…
  3. Crunch numbers using Einsteins famous equation: You can’t visit CERN without crunching some numbers. Many people will be familiar with Einsteins famous equation of mass–energy equivalence E=mc². What this means is that energy can be converted into mass (and vice versa) and the “exchange rate” () is a very large number – the speed of light squared. So, you can turn a small about of mass into a HUGE amount of energy. Armed with your handy mass–energy calculator, you can crunch numbers, for example 1 kg = 90,000,000,000,000,000 Joules.
  4. Thank the technology mothership: CERN is widely known as the the birthplace the Web, which we should all be thankful for. Many other technologies can trace their origin to CERN. Bent Stumpe and his colleagues developed the first touchscreens as early as 1973. [3,4] Cloud computing platforms such as Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud, Microsoft Azure have some of their roots in Grid Computing developed at CERN too. [5] Key pieces of widely used open-source software like Ceph and OpenStack have been co-developed at CERN. Where would we be without massive international collaborations? Find out more about how investment creates a positive impact on society through knowledge transfer, spin outs, startups and more at kt.cern. Many of these projects have an impact far beyond physics in areas such as medicine and consumer electronics. Thank you technology mothership. 🙏
  5. Boggle at Big Data: Data speaks louder than words. Here is some random data for your mind to boggle on:
    • When switched on, some of the LHC detectors track up to 40 million events per second.
    • The LHC Grid computing generates 30 petabytes (10¹⁵ bytes) per year, with 300 petabytes of data permanently archived in its tape libraries as of October 2018.
    • The big loop underground is 27km long. Travelling very fast, close to the speed of light, a proton laps the circuit 11,000 times every second.
    • There are 100,000 scientists from over 100 countries working at CERN
    • More boggling can be done in the CERN data centre, especially the key facts and figures. [6] Anyone can explore and play with over two petabytes of Physics data at opendata.cern.ch
  6. Contribute to the Grid: Talking of data, Physicists from all over the world work on data produced by the experiments. This requires supercomputers, very High Performance Computing (HPC) and Grid computing that no single machine can provide. This is why the Worldwide LHC Computing Grid (WLCG) exists. With the improvements of the LHC more and more computing power is required to crunch the data. Anyone can contribute by joining in the LHC@home project. Who knows? Maybe you can be a part of the discovery of the new mysterious particle or the proof that physicists have been struggling with for decades. CERN’s Grid builds on volunteered resources provided via the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC) middleware.
  7. Book a free tour: While the two free permanent exhibitions require no booking, the free tours do and they offer much more. Tours are typically given by knowledgeable and enthusiastic staff. You can learn a lot from the permanent exhibitions, but a tour guide brings the place to life. Tours fill up quickly and provide access to restricted parts of CERN such as mission control, the ATLAS experiment, CMS cavern, synchro-cyclotron, the CERN data centre and more. [6] The cyclotron tells the story of CERN from 1957, when the first particle accelerator arrived in pieces on the back of a few lorries. Today it spans 27 km of France and Switzerland. How did that happen? Using lights and projectors, the exhibition brings the story to life in an illuminating way. At the time of writing, limited underground visits are possible as we are in the middle of the long shutdown 2 [7]. Tunnels are accessible but you’ll need to book a tour.

If you ever get the chance to visit.cern, it is well worth it. There is nowhere else quite like it. CERN is a truly inspiring place that demonstrates what can be achieved when thousands of people collaborate on a shared vision.


I’d like to thank current and former CERN technical students from the University of Manchester for their tours (both virtual and actual) of CERN and comments on drafts of this article: Raluca Cruceru, Simeon Tsvetankov, Iuliana Voinea, Grzegorz Jacenków, Boris Vasilev, Ciprian Tomoiagă, Nicole Morgan, Paul-Adrian Gafton, Joshua Dawes and Stefan Klikovits. Did I miss anything? Let me know in the comments or by email.

Thanks to Gayle Hermick for her permission to re-use the picture of her artwork in this piece.

DISCLAIMER: You can probably tell from reading the above that I am not a Physicist, unless you count a very rusty A-level from decades ago. Any factual errors in this article are the combined fault of me and my Physics teacher!


    1. John Graham-Cumming (2009) The Geek Atlas: 128 places where Science & Technology come alive O’Reilly Media, Inc. ISBN: 9780596802257
    2. Did you know, CERN employs ten times more engineers and technicians than research physicists? home.cern/science/engineering Deadlines for applications are typically, end of January for summer internships and September and March for technical studentships, check careers.cern for details.
    3. Bent Stumpe and Christine Sutton (2010) The first capacitative touch screens at CERN: The story of a forerunner to today’s mobile-phone screens, cerncourier.com
    4. Bent Stumpe (2014) The ‘Touch Screen’ Revolution: 103–116. DOI: 10.1002/9783527687039.ch05 Chapter 5 of From Physics to Daily Life by Beatrice Bressan Wiley‐VCH Verlag GmbH & Co ISBN: 9783527332861
    5. Maria Alandes Pradillo and Andrzej Nowak (2013) The Grid, CERN’s Global Supercomputer Computerphile
    6. Mélissa Gaillard (2019) Key Facts and Figures – CERN Data Centre information-technology.web.cern.ch
    7. Evan Gough (2018) The Large Hadron Collider has been Shut Down, and Will Stay Down for Two Years While they Perform Major Upgrades universetoday.com


June 23, 2017

Nine ideas for teaching Computing at School from the 2017 CAS conference


Delegates at the Computing at School conference 2017 #CASConf17 answering diagnostic questions, picture by Miles Berry.

The Computing At School (CAS) conference is an annual event for educators, mostly primary and secondary school teachers from the public and private sector in the UK. Now in its ninth year, it attracts over 300 delegates from across the UK and beyond to the University of Birmingham, see the brochure for details. One of the purposes of the conference is to give teachers new ideas to use in their classrooms to teach Computer Science and Computational Thinking. I went along for my first time (*blushes*) seeking ideas to use in an after school Code Club (ages 7-10) I’ve been running for a few years and also for approaches that undergraduate students in Computer Science (age 20+) at the University of Manchester could use in their final year Computer Science Education projects. So here are nine ideas (in random brain dump order) I’ll be putting to immediate use in clubs, classrooms, labs and lecture theatres:

  1. Linda Liukas demonstrated some intriguing ideas from her children’s books and HelloRuby.com that are based on Montessori education. I shall be trying some of these out (particularly the storytelling stuff) at code club to keep girls involved
  2. Sue Sentance and Neil Brown from King’s College London gave an overview of some current research in pedagogy.  They discussed research questions that can be tackled in the classroom like (for example) do learners make more progress using visual programming languages (like Scratch and Blockly) or traditional text-based languages (like Python and Java etc)? Many of these research questions would make good projects for undergraduate students to investigate in secondary schools, see research on frame based editors, for example.
  3. Michel Wermelinger from the Open University demonstrated using iPython notebooks for teaching data literacy at the Urban Data School. Although I’m familiar with iPython, it had never occurred to me to actually use iPython in school for teaching. It is a no-brainer, when you think about it, even for primary, because you have your code, inputs and outputs all in one window, and can step through code execution instead of (or as well as) using more conventional tools like Trinket, Thonny or IDLE. Data literacy is fun to teach.
  4. Miles Berry from the University of Roehampton demonstrated Diagnostic Questions in Project Quantum. These are a collection of high quality quizzes to use interactively for example as hinge questions, where teaching is adapted depending on answers given, like this multiple choice question:
    Consider the following Python code:
    a = 20
    b = 10
    a = b
    What are the values of a and b?
    A: a = 10, b = 10
    B: a = 20, b = 20
    C: a = 30, b = 10
    D: a = 10, b = 20

    You’ll have to try these five questions to check your answer. The useful thing here is that DiagnosticQuestions.com (the platform on which this is built) allows you to see lots of responses, for example each answer (A, B, C or D) above was selected by 25% of participants. You can also view explanations which illuminate common misconceptions (e.g. the classic mistake of confusing assignment with equality) as well as providing a bank of free questions for use in the classroom.

  5. Mark Guzdial from GeorgiaTech discussed using learning sciences to improve computing teaching. He demonstrated predictive questions (e.g. ask students What do you think will happen when we run this code? before actually executing it) alongside what he called subgoal labelling. These are simple ideas (with proven benefits) that can be put to use immediately. I’ll also be trying the Live Coding (with Sonic Pi) and Media Computation he demonstrated asap.
  6. Laurence Rogers demonstrated Insight: Mr. Bit  this looks like a good app for using BBC microbits in the classroom, connected to a range of sensors, provided you’ve got access to iPads.
  7. A copy of Hello World magazine was in the conference bag. The summer 2017 issue has an unusual article from Ian Benson from Kingston University and Jenny Cane describing their use of the Haskell programming language to teach 5-7 year olds to reason symbolically and learn algebra before arithmetic with help from Cuisenaire rods. The Scratch Maths project at University College London are doing similar things, building mathematical knowledge using Scratch, rather than Haskell. These are experimental ideas you could try out on unsuspecting (junior) family members.
  8. Lee Goss from Barefoot Computing, described the free CPD for primary school teachers on offer from BT. I’ve signed up and hope to plug some of the shortcomings in the Code Club Curriculum.
  9. Richard Jarvis demonstrated appJar, a handy Python library for teaching Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs). That’s Jar as in Jarvis and Jam, not JAR as in Java ARchive BTW. I’ve not tried GUIs at code club yet, but appJar looks like a good way to do it.

There were lots more people and projects at the conference not mentioned here including tonnes of workshops. If you’re interested in any of the above, the CAS conference will be back in 2018. Despite the challenging problems faced by Computer Science at GCSE level, it was reassuring and inspiring to meet some members of the vibrant, diverse and friendly community pushing the boundaries of computing in schools across the United Kingdom. Thanks again to everyone at CAS for putting on another great event, I will definitely consider attending next year and maybe you should too.

July 31, 2015

Wikipedia Science Conference @WellcomeTrust in London, September 2nd & 3rd 2015 #wikisci

There is growing interest in Wikipedia, Wikidata, Commons, and other Wikimedia projects as platforms for opening up the scientific process [1]. The first Wikipedia Science Conference will discuss activities in this area at the Wellcome Collection Conference Centre in London on the 2nd & 3rd September 2015. There will be keynote talks from Wendy Hall (@DameWendyDBE) and Peter Murray-Rust (@petermurrayrust) and many other presentations including:

  • Daniel Mietchen (@EvoMRI), National Institutes of Health: wikipedia and scholarly communication
  • Alex Bateman (@AlexBateman1), European Bioinformatics Institute: Using wikipedia to annotate scientific databases
  • Geoffrey Bilder (@GBilder), CrossRef, Using DOIs in wikipedia
  • Richard Pinch (@IMAMaths), Institute of Mathematics and its Applications. Wikimedia versus academia: a clash of cultures
  • Andy Mabbett (@PigsOnTheWing), Royal Society of Chemistry / ORCID. Wikipedia, Wikidata and more – How Can Scientists Help?
  • Darren Logan (@DarrenLogan), Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, Using scientific databases to annotate wikipedia
  • Dario Taraborelli (@ReaderMeter), Wikimedia & Altmetrics, Citing as a public service
  • … and many more

I’ll be doing a talk on “Improving the troubled relationship between Scientists and Wikipedia” (see slides below) with help from John Byrne who has been a Wikipedian in Residence at the Royal Society and Cancer Research UK.

How much does finding out more about all this wiki-goodness cost? An absolute bargain at just £29 for two days – what’s not to like? Tickets are available on eventbrite, register now, while tickets are still available. 


  1. Misha Teplitskiy, Grace Lu, & Eamon Duede (2015). Amplifying the Impact of Open Access: Wikipedia and the Diffusion of
    Science Wikipedia Workshop at 9th International Conference on Web and Social Media (ICWSM), Oxford, UK arXiv: 1506.07608v1

July 3, 2015

Manchester Digital, Education & Digital Skills in 2015


#DeepDream manipulated image of the Creation of Adam, some rights reserved (CC-BY) by Kyle McDonald (@kcimc) on flickr

Manchester Digital a non-profit trade assocation of around 500 digital businesses in the north west of england. Every year they hold elections at their AGM for members of their council who serve for two years. It’s time for me to stand for re-election because my two years is up. Here’s a vote-for-me pitch in 100 words:

Digital skills are crucial to the success of Manchester Digital (MD) but many members of MD struggle to recruit employees with the skills their businesses need. Key questions for MD’s growing membership are how can the skills shortage be met, and what are the responsibilities of employers and educators in addressing the digital skills shortage? As a council member, I would reboot the education special interest group to report thoroughly on these issues at a strategic level. The report would provide an overview of what digital skills young people are likely to have aged 16, 18 and 21+ and what employers can do to bridge the gaps.

If you’re interested in finding out more about Manchester Digital, and hearing from diverse bunch of 18 candidates standing for 6 places on the council, come along to the MD AGM on Thursday 9th July at 5.30pm in Ziferblat (@ziferblatedgest) – where everything is free, except time.


  1. #DeepDream Inceptionism: Going Deeper into Neural Networks, Google Research blog
  2. #DeepDream – a code example for visualizing Neural Networks Google Research blog
  3. Britain faces ‘growing shortage’ of digital skills” Daily Telegraph
  4. A UK digital skills gap looms, The Guardian
  5. UK failing to address digital skills shortage, says Lords report, ComputerWeekly.com

May 8, 2015

MPs with Science Degrees: How did Science & Technology do in the UK General Election 2015?

In case you missed it, the people of the United Kingdom have just democratically elected 650 Members of Parliament (MPs) to run their government for the next five years [1,2]. How many of these newly elected MPs have science backgrounds? Like many, I was inspired by Mark Henderson’s book The Geek Manifesto [3] back in 2012 after reading an article which argued that (quote) “with just one British MP having a scientific background, the people who run the country clearly need some expert advice”. So when I heard the news that the MP concerned, Julian Huppert (a.k.a. the “only scientist in the commons”) had lost his Cambridge seat, I lamented accordingly on twitter:

My lament was retweeted quite a bit, then Roger Highfield at the Science Museum in London challenged the interwebs to find if it really was true:

The sciencey MP factoid was quickly questioned by some random bloke on twitter called Richard Dawkins:

… and lots of people weighed in (see below)  – as they usually do on twitter. Thankfully Margaret Harris at Physics World, set the record straight and drew attention to the impressively large Physics Vote. Viva La Relativity!

Who knew there were so many physicists involved in the election? Not me. Turns out, the article about only one science MP, is a bit misleading. Julian Huppert was the only MP in the last government to be a “primary science worker” – that’s not quite the same as studying science at university. Julian was the only MP in the last government with scientific background at PhD level:

Members of the UK Parliament with science and technology degrees in 2015

So with help from twitter, the list of MPs with science degrees looks something like this (for a 2017 update see MPs to watch via the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE)):

  1. Heidi Allen MP for South Cambridgeshire (BSc in Astrophysics)
  2. Steve Baker MP for Wycombe (BSc Aerospace Engineering, MSc Computer Science)
  3. Gavin Barwell MP for Croydon Central (BA Natural Sciences)
  4. Margaret Beckett MP for Derby South (BSc Metallurgy)
  5. Karen Bradley MP for Staffordshire Moorlands (BSc Mathematics)
  6. Tom Brake MP for Carshalton and Wallington (BSc Physics)
  7. Julian Brazier MP for Canterbury (BA Mathematics)
  8. Andrew Bridgen MP for North West Leicestershire (BSc Genetics)
  9. Alan Brown MP for Kilmarnock (BSc Civil Engineering)
  10. Therese Coffey MP for Suffolk Coastal (BSc & PhD Chemistry)
  11. David Davis MP for Haltemprice & Howden (BSc Computer Science)
  12. Robert Flello MP for Stoke-on-Trent South (BSc Chemistry)
  13. Liam Fox MP for North Somerset (Bachelor of Medicine)
  14. Mark Hendrick MP for Central Lancashire (BSc Eletrical Engineering)
  15. Carol Monaghan MP for Glasgow North West (BSc Physics)
  16. Liz McInnes MP for Heywood & Middleton (BSc Biochemistry)
  17. Chi Onwurah MP for Newcastle Central (BEng Electrical Engineering)
  18. Chris Philp MP for  Croydon South (BSc Physics)
  19. Alok Sharma MP for Reading West (BSc Physics & Electronics)
  20. Alec Shelbrooke MP for Elmet & Rothwell (BEng Mechanical Engineering)
  21. Graham Stringer MP for Blackley (BSc Chemistry)
  22. Stephen Timms MP for East Ham (MA Mathematics)
  23. Philippa Whitford MP for Ayrshire Central (Bachelor of Medicine)
  24. Sarah Wollaston MP for Totnes (Bachelor of Medicine)
  25. Valerie Vaz MP for Walsall South (BSc Biochemistry)
  26. Nadhim Zahawi MP for Stratford-on-Avon (BSc Chemical Engineering)

So there are at least 26 MPs out of 650 total who have some kind of STEM educational backgrounds, and hopefully several more. Thankfully, much better than none – but still not that high considering the proportion of STEM in the general population. This article MP’s Degrees: What do they know? claims there are many more scientific MPs, but it depends what you mean by Science of course. Over at the Science Campaign, they have counted 83 politicians with a background or “interest in” science. Doesn’t everyone have an interest in Science & Technology at some level? If so, there are 650 out of 650 MPs (100%) with an interest in science and technology then? As for MPs who have an actual science education, your mileage may vary, especially if you think Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE) are all sciences. Wannabe sciences? Yes. Actual Sciences? No.

In an ideal world where politicians create policies based on evidence, rather than finding evidence to fit their policies, how many scientists and technologists do we actually need in our government? Would it actually help make for better policies?

[Update: Jo Johnson MP for Orpington (BA Modern History), is the newly appointed Minister for Universities and Science [4], a post formerly held by David Willetts. Apparently, Johnson doesn’t know anything about Science. Does it matter?]


  1. Castelvecchi, D. (2015). Why the polls got the UK election wrong Nature DOI: 10.1038/nature.2015.17511
  2. Gibney, E. (2015). What the UK election results mean for science Nature DOI: 10.1038/nature.2015.17506
  3. Anon (2012). Books in brief: The Geek Manifesto: Why Science Matters Nature, 485 (7397), 173-173 DOI: 10.1038/485173a
  4. Gibney, E., & Van Noorden, R. (2015). UK researchers fret about downgrading of science minister role Nature DOI: 10.1038/nature.2015.17535

Thanks everyone who weighed in on twitter:

December 22, 2014

Makey Christmas and a Hacky New Year!

Christmas lectures by Ben Nuttall

Christmas lectures 2014 by @Ben_Nuttall

Our homes are full of technology that we typically take for granted and understand little. Your average smartphone or tablet, for example, is a “black box”, that deliberately discourages modification by tinkering and hacking. This Christmas, Danielle George takes three technologies we routinely take for granted – the light bulb, the telephone and the motor – and shows you how to hack your home as part of the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures broadcast on BBC Four.

Lecture 1/3 The Light Bulb Moment: First broadcast Monday 29th December

Inspired by Geordie inventor Joseph Swan, Danielle attempts to play a computer game on the windows of a skyscraper using hundreds of light bulbs. Along the way, Danielle will show the next generation how to hack, adapt and transform the technologies found in the home to have fun and make a difference to the world.

This year’s Royal Institution Christmas Lectures have been inspired by the great inventors and the thousands of people playing with technology at their kitchen tables or tinkering in their garden sheds. When Joseph Swan demonstrated the first working light bulb in 1878 he could never have dreamed that in 2014 we’d be surrounded by super-bright LED screens and lights that could be controlled using mobile phones.

In this lecture, Danielle explains how these technologies work and show how they can be adapted to help you realise your own light bulb moments. She shows how to send wireless messages using a barbecue, control a firework display with your laptop and use a torch to browse the internet. (via richannel.org/the-light-bulb-moment)

Lecture 2/3 Making Contact: First broadcast Tuesday 30th December

Inspired by Alexander Graham Bell, Danielle attempts to beam a special guest into the theatre via hologram using the technology found in a mobile phone. Along the way, Danielle shows the next generation how to hack, adapt and transform the electronics found in the home to have fun and make a difference to the world.

This year’s Royal Institution Christmas Lectures have been inspired by the great inventors and the thousands of people playing with technology at their kitchen tables or tinkering in their garden sheds. When Scottish inventor Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated the first telephone in 1876, he could never have dreamed that in 2014 we’d all be carrying wire-free phones in our pockets and be able to video chat in crystal clear HD across the world.

In this lecture, Danielle explains how these technologies work and shows how they can be adapted to help keep you connected to the people around you. She shows how to control paintball guns with a webcam and turn your smartphone into a microscope, whilst also investigating a device that allows you to feel invisible objects in mid-air. (via richannel.org/making-contact)

Lecture 3/3 A New Revolution: First broadcast Wednesday 31st December

Inspired by the Royal Institution’s very own Michael Faraday, Danielle attempts to use simple motors to construct the world’s greatest robot orchestra. Along the way, Danielle shows the next generation how to hack, adapt and transform the electronics found in the home to have fun and make a difference to the world.

This year’s Royal Institution Christmas Lectures have been inspired by the great inventors and the thousands of people playing with technology at their kitchen tables or tinkering in their garden sheds. When Michael Faraday demonstrated the first electric motor in 1822, he could never have dreamed that in 2014 we’d be surrounded by mechanical devices capable of performing nearly every human task.

In this lecture, Danielle explains how these robotic and motor-driven appliances work and shows how they can adapted to help you kick-start a technological revolution. She shows how to turn a washing machine into a wind turbine, how Lego can solve a Rubik’s Cube and how the next Mars rover will traverse an alien world. (via richannel.org/a-new-revolution)

If you miss the television broadcasts, the lectures will also be available on BBC iPlayer for 30 days then at richannel.org/christmas-lectures.

This will (probably) be the last post of the year at O’Really, so if you’ve visited, thanks for reading during 2014. Wherever you are, whatever you’re up to, have a Very Makey Christmas and a Hacky New Year in 2015.

2014 vs. 1964: Numbers speak louder than words

It’s that time of year when people look back at over the year that was 2014 (1-5). The place where I work, celebrated it’s 50th anniversary. Colleagues put together a little booklet of facts and figures with an some accompanying web pages to mark the occasion. My personal favourite factoid compares computing in 2014 with 1964. The Atlas Computer represented the state of the art in computing in 1964, and today that crown is held by SpiNNaker – a very different kind of computer.

fifty years of computing

50 years of computing (and pipe-smoking is lesson common around computers)

Sometimes, numbers speak louder than words, so here is a numerical comparison of Atlas (1964) with SpiNNaker (2014):

Feature (see this) Atlas Computer (1964) SpiNNaker (2014)
Size A very large room 19 millimetres square
Transistors 60,000 1,100,000,000
Instructions per second 700,000 3,600,00,000

One way of looking at this data is to say, based on the the instructions per second, SpiNNaker is around ~5000 times faster than Atlas. But what is probably more interesting is that SpiNNaker (which is due for completion in 2015) is expected to be used by neuroscientists and psychologists, as a platform to study problems such as Alzheimer’s disease – something that would have been impossible (and unthinkable) only fifty years ago [6,7]. Wonder where the next 50 years will take us in 2064?


  1. Anon (2014). The most-read Nature news stories of 2014 Nature DOI: 10.1038/nature.2014.16550
  2. Morello, L., Abbott, A., Butler, D., Callaway, E., Cyranoski, D., Reardon, S., Schiermeier, Q., & Witze, A. (2014). 365 days: 2014 in science Nature, 516 (7531), 300-303 DOI: 10.1038/516300a
  3. Anon (2014). 365 days: Nature’s 10, Ten people who mattered this year. Nature, 516 (7531), 311-319 DOI: 10.1038/516311a
  4. Katherine Maher (2014) What did the world make 100 million edits of in 2014? Wikimedia blog
  5. Hand, E. (2014). Comet Breakthrough of the Year + People’s choice Science, 346 (6216), 1442-1443 DOI: 10.1126/science.346.6216.1442
  6. Furber, S., Galluppi, F., Temple, S., & Plana, L. (2014). The SpiNNaker Project Proceedings of the IEEE, 102 (5), 652-665 DOI: 10.1109/JPROC.2014.2304638
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