O'Really?

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…

References

  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 8, 2012

BBC Connected Studio: Get involved in shaping digital content at the Beeb

BBC: The Olympic Broadcaster

Olympic broadcasting by the BBC from Quay House, Salford Quays, Manchester

The BBC is currently seeking external partners for collaborative innovation around BBC Online. This is happening through a series of events called BBC Connected Studio. It’s open to small, medium and micro businesses, individuals and digital agencies from the creative sector who want to work with the BBC developing new functions, features or formats for online audiences.

The first studio was held in Manchester last Friday focusing on Home Page, Search and Navigation (HPSN), a part of the Beeb that gets around 9 million (and up to 40 million) unique visitors every week from the UK alone. International visitors to this page get sent to bbc.com which is completely separate. Here are some rough notes on the event from a non-BBC outsiders perspective.

The basic format of the day goes something like this:

  • You are given a brief
  • There is an introduction from various people to kick things off
  • You have access to experts within the BBC, to pick their brains
  • There is time to work up your ideas on the day
  • Then you pitch an idea in ~2 minutes (like a much friendlier version of Dragons’ Den) to an assembled audience of about 80-ish people collected on the day.
  • There is time for questions and feedback
  • Successful pitches are notified after the event with the opportunity to build a functioning prototype and potential pilot project

For the event last Friday, the studio was kicked off by introductions from Ralph Rivera and Adrian Woolard, James Thornett and Clare Hudson.

During the day, there was expert advice available, formally at Speakers’ Corner and informally via conversation. This covered a wide range of topics including Simon Williams on audiences, Tim Fiennes on market analysis, Tom Broughton on homepage technology, Steve Gibbons on user experience and Phil Poole on personalisation.

Following this there was time to work on concepts and plan presentations, including a very useful audience feedback session with some real users of the BBC home page.

At the end of the day there were just over 20 open public pitches and 9 closed private pitches (those with sensitive intellectual property rights). I teamed up with Nick Drummond (of ATilla the AT-AT pet fame) to pitch an idea called Show Me More – providing links to BBC content directly on the home page (bbc.co.uk).

What worked well

The event went well, especially since this was the first one of the series. The audience feedback sessions and speakers corner were well organised and well attended. Whatever the outcome, this was a good opportunity to bid for work, see what goes on at the BBC and meet some of the people behind the BBC online. There was lots of advice available on how to work up a pitch, the audience was friendly and respectful. It was enlightening to watch other people’s presentations. The fifth floor of Quay house at MediaCityUK (pictured above) is an ideal venue for this kind of event with lots of different sized spaces for collaborating, thinking, eating, drinking and enjoying the fine views of Manchester from an elevated perspective.

How it could be improved

There was (inevitably?) a fair amount repetition in the 20 pitches as everyone was pitching to the same brief. It might be better next time to have fewer pitches and encourage people to work in slightly larger groups and reduce duplication. You can’t say very much in two minutes but perhaps that’s the idea…

As an aside, I’d love to see a public open API to BBC content, as far as I know there isn’t really one (yet). An open API would allow innovation by opening up content and services to organisations and businesses outside the BBC. Something along the lines of the Twitter API, Flickr API or Google Maps API would be great. An API seems to fit squarely with the needs of it’s constitution as a public service broadcaster. I asked about this at Speakers’ Corner and on twitter (speakers’ corner of the interwebs). There are security issues (as usual) but:

I think there might be a BBC SPARQL endpoint somewhere (there certainly used to be), which is an API of sorts but can’t find the exact location at the time of posting this.

All in all, BBC Connected Studio was informative and fun, thanks to Adrian Woolard and everyone at the BBC for your excellent hospitality. If you’re interested in taking part, it’s well worth joining in.

How to get involved

If you’d liked to get involved in BBC Connected, there are various events scheduled in 2012 on different products at the Beeb including: Weather & Travel, CBeebies, UX&D, CBBC, Sport, TV / iPlayer, News, Knowledge & Learning, Radio & Music. For more info subscribe to the BBC Internet blog, follow tweets @BBC_Connected or visit BBC Connected Studio.

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.

References

  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]

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)]

May 31, 2010

Martin Rees on Science and the Citizen

This years Reith Lectures by Martin Rees are being broadcast on BBC Radio 4 during June. An important theme in the lectures this year is scientists relationship with society. Rees argues that science is part of our culture, crucial for dealing with pressing international issues like population growth, food security and energy development. He also argues that science is not just for scientists, everyone has have a feel for it, not just the specialists. Here is the blurb from the first lecture: “Science and the Citizen”

“In the first of this year’s Reith Lectures, entitled Scientific Horizons, Martin Rees, President of the Royal Society, Master of Trinity College and Astronomer Royal, explores the challenges facing science in the 21st century. We are increasingly turning to government and the media to explain the risks we face. But in the wake of public confusion over issues like climate change, the swine ‘flu vaccine and, more recently, Iceland’s volcanic ash cloud, Martin Rees calls on scientists to come forward and play a greater role in helping us understand the science that affects us all.”

Lectures are available below and via the iPlayer.

Lecture Topic File Play in Browser
1/4: The Scientific Citizen Who should we should trust to explain the risks we face? mp3
2/4: Surviving the Century Does science have the answers to help us save our planet? mp3
3/4: What We Will Never Know What are the limits of Scientific knowledge? mp3
4/4: The Runaway World How can countries stay scientifically competitive? mp3

[Creative Commons licensed picture of Martin Rees above by The Reith Lectures on Flickr, see also introductory clip on the lectures.]

May 1, 2008

Bring Me the Web of Alfredo Garcia

Humph (23 May 1921 – 25 April 2008)Veteran broadcaster Humphrey Lyttelton sadly passed away last week. He was probably best known for hosting the BBC Radio 4 show I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue. To commemorate, over at Nature Network, Bob O’Hara kicked off a game of Cheddar Gorge. Meanwhile, the Information Management Group have been playing (Computer) Scientists Themed Film / Book Club, here is a shortened list of some of the competition entries… (more…)

May 5, 2006

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