August 17, 2012

What is the collective noun for a group of Systems Biologists?

From helix to hairball

According to Arthur Lander, “hairball” networks like the one of human proteins above, are the new icon of biology, taking over from the famous double-helix. Image originally published in BMC Biology [1].

What happened was, I was looking for a creatively commons licensed picture of Pedro Mendes to upload to commons.wikimedia.org. Not the footballing Pedro Mendes who played for Rangers, Spurs, Pompey and Porto but the systems biologist Pedro Mendes who plays for Virginia Tech and Manchester. Thankfully, another systems biologist, Michael Hucka kindly pointed to his impressive collection of pictures, taken at various events over the years which include some shots of Pedro. Looking at these pictures made me idly wonder: What is the collective noun for a group of systems biologists?

Systems biology is the study networks of various kinds [2,3] so it’s ripe for a collective noun, and there were several suggested on twitter. Since twitter has recently developed a nasty habit of disappearing tweets, here is a collection gathered and preserved for posterity from the twitterome*:

A jamboree of systems biologists?

Tom Williamson and Mike Hucka initially plumped for a Jamboree of systems biologists:

A loop or an ome of systems biologists?

Mike Hucka and Nathan Pearson voted for a Loop or an Ome of systems biologists:

A cluster of systems biologists?

Then again, maybe it should be a cluster of biologists?

A network of systems biologists?

Douglas Kell reckoned on a network of systems biologists:

A system of systems biologists?

Ewan Birney thought it had be be a system:

So there you have it, according to the twitterome, the collective noun for a group of systems biologists is a system, network, cluster, ome, jamboree or loop (delete as appropriate). No doubt there are many more, that’s what twitter hashtags are for, #SysBiologists.


  1. Arthur D. Lander (2010). The edges of understanding, BMC Biology, 8 (1) DOI: 10.1186/1741-7007-8-40
  2. Hiroaki Kitano (2002). Systems Biology: A Brief Overview, Science, 295 (5560) 1664. DOI: 10.1126/science.1069492
  3. Trey Ideker, Timothy Galitski & Leroy Hood (2001). Systems Biology: A new approach to decoding life, Annual Review of Genomics and Human Genetics, 2 (1) 372. DOI: 10.1146/annurev.genom.2.1.343

* That’s another #badomics award for Jonathan Eisen’s growing collection…don’t blame me, blame Leonid Kruglyak

December 11, 2009

The Semantic Biochemical Journal experiment

utopian documentsThere is an interesting review [1] (and special issue) in the Biochemical Journal today, published by Portland Press Ltd. It provides (quote) “a whirlwind tour of recent projects to transform scholarly publishing paradigms, culminating in Utopia and the Semantic Biochemical Journal experiment”. Here is a quick outline of the publishing projects the review describes and discusses:

  • Blogs for biomedical science
  • Biomedical Ontologies – OBO etc
  • Project Prospect and the Royal Society of Chemistry
  • The Chemspider Journal of Chemistry
  • The FEBS Letters experiment
  • PubMedCentral and BioLit [2]
  • Public Library of Science (PLoS) Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTD) [3]
  • The Elsevier Grand Challenge [4]
  • Liquid Publications
  • The PDF debate: Is PDF a hamburger? Or can we build more useful applications on top of it?
  • The Semantic Biochemical Journal project with Utopia Documents [5]

The review asks what advances these projects have made  and what obstacles to progress still exist. It’s an entertaining tour, dotted with enlightening observations on what is broken in scientific publishing and some of the solutions involving various kinds of semantics.

One conclusion made is that many of the experiments described above are expensive and difficult, but that the costs of not improving scientific publishing with various kinds of semantic markup is high, or as the authors put it:

“If the cost of semantic publishing seems high, then we also need to ask, what is the price of not doing it? From the results of the experiments we have seen to date, there is clearly a need to move forward and still a great deal of scope to innovate. If we fail to move forward in a collaborative way, if we fail to engage the key players, the price will be high. We will continue to bury scientific knowledge, as we routinely do now, in static, unconnected journal articles; to sequester fragments of that knowledge in disparate databases that are largely inaccessible from journal pages; to further waste countless hours of scientists’ time either repeating experiments they didn’t know had been performed before, or worse, trying to verify facts they didn’t know had been shown to be false. In short, we will continue to fail to get the most from our literature, we will continue to fail to know what we know, and will continue to do science a considerable disservice.”

It’s well worth reading the review, and downloading the Utopia software to experience all of the interactive features demonstrated in this special issue, especially the animated molecular viewers and sequence alignments.

Enjoy… the Utopia team would be interested to know what people think, see commentary on friendfeed,  the digital curation blog and youtube video below for more information.


  1. Attwood, T., Kell, D., McDermott, P., Marsh, J., Pettifer, S., & Thorne, D. (2009). Calling International Rescue: knowledge lost in literature and data landslide! Biochemical Journal, 424 (3), 317-333 DOI: 10.1042/BJ20091474
  2. Fink, J., Kushch, S., Williams, P., & Bourne, P. (2008). BioLit: integrating biological literature with databases Nucleic Acids Research, 36 (Web Server) DOI: 10.1093/nar/gkn317
  3. Shotton, D., Portwin, K., Klyne, G., & Miles, A. (2009). Adventures in Semantic Publishing: Exemplar Semantic Enhancements of a Research Article PLoS Computational Biology, 5 (4) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1000361
  4. Pafilis, E., O’Donoghue, S., Jensen, L., Horn, H., Kuhn, M., Brown, N., & Schneider, R. (2009). Reflect: augmented browsing for the life scientist Nature Biotechnology, 27 (6), 508-510 DOI: 10.1038/nbt0609-508
  5. Pettifer, S., Thorne, D., McDermott, P., Marsh, J., Villéger, A., Kell, D., & Attwood, T. (2009). Visualising biological data: a semantic approach to tool and database integration BMC Bioinformatics, 10 (Suppl 6) DOI: 10.1186/1471-2105-10-S6-S19

July 13, 2009

Science Foo Camp 2009: Scifoo Day Two

Theodore Gray (of Wolfram Research) with super-soluble sodium acetateThe fourth International Science Foo Camp (scifoo) 2009 has just concluded. Here are some very brief and incomplete notes and links from some of the sessions on the second day (Saturday), see the scholarly kitchen for a report on the first day. With seven parallel sessions, most people at this event miss most (six sevenths) of the sessions, but here is a summary of the (one seventh) sessions I managed to get to:

  • Larry Page ran a session on Making Artificial Intelligence happen. In brief, Larry argued that not enough people are working on this problem. Marvin Minsky joined in talked about his book The Emotion Machine. I’d write more about this, but Larry asked for what he said to be off-the-record so he could speak more freely.
  • Following on from this Harry Collins and Lee Smolin ran a session titled: The Social Nature of Knowledge, Science and Artificial Intelligence. As David Colquhoun pointed out in the session, you “need to be something of a sado-masochist” to attend a session on the sociology of Science but there was some interesting discussion on the Science (truth?) vs. Belief (religion) debate. Henry Thomspson pointed out: some argue that “Knowledge is true belief” which can make it hard to distinguish between Science and Religion. Jamie Heywood described his simple “truth formula” where truth = cost to make a claim divided by the cost to disprove claim.
  • Next up Douglas Kell did a session on Data-driven Science. This discussed the relationship and balance between hypothesis driven science (hypothetico-deductive) and data driven science (via inductive reasoning and machine learning for example) [1]. Attendees in this session included Tony Tyson (Director of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope), Craig Rowell (BioRad), George Poste, Julia Lane (NSF), James Wilsdon (Royal Society), David Colquhoun, Nat Torkington, the six-minute-genome guy from Halcyon Molecular whose name I can’t remember and Annalee Newitz. Much of the discussion was about the over-reliance on hypothesis driven science (e.g. 92% of NIH R01 grants have to be hypothesis-driven) which can make the “fishing-trip” or “data-driven” science difficult to do. One conclusion from this presentation was that both types of science are required and complementary.

Then it’s time for lunch, not just any old food, but some yummy Google Food.

  • In the afternoon, I ran a session on The Invisible Scientist: Personal Digital Identity on the Web, Problems and Solutions. After a short set of introductory slides we discussed some solutions to identifying scientists digital contributions, not just electronic journal publications but wiki edits, blog posts, software development, ontology and database curation etc. Participants in this session included Cameron Neylon, Julie Lant (NSF) who will reuse some of my data in a report she is writing (Yay!), Nicola McCarthy (Senior editor of Nature Reviews Cancer), Shirley Wu, Michael Rogan, Mackenzie Cowell and Chris Holmes. The last time I was at Science Foo Camp (back in 2007) I felt slightly phased by the stellar company (nobel prize winners, billionaires, entrepreneurs, silicon valley A-listers, venture capitalists, artists, policy makers, movers and shakers) that I didn’t present anything. I’m very glad I made the effort this year, it forced me to think harder about the problem of digital identity (and solutions), which included a useful chat with Googler Ben Laurie (a cryptography person) who gave me the lowdown on OpenID, PKI and the like. Very useful stuff – thanks Ben and thanks to everyone who turned up at my session.
  • The second session of the afternoon was on Google Wave with Cameron Neylon. I won’t say too much about this, because it will probably be blogged by Cameron and others – but it was an interesting peek into some of the current strengths and weakness of this software – especially from the point of view of scientists.
  • The last two sessions of the day, I stayed in the Lightning Talks organised by Nat Torkington (see blog). These were great, probably my favourite part of scifoo this year. Each speaker got a very strict five minutes, including Natahan Wolfe, Ben Fry on visualisation, George Dyson on Darwin, Christopher Stumm on astronomical metadata, Adam Summers on fish, Linda Stone on unhealthy computing, Ed Lu, Brian Uzzi and Fiorenzo, Shelley Batts, Larry Weiss, Saul Griffith, Chris DiBona on telemedicine, Joshua Bloch on Java puzzlers, Christian Bok on poetry and Gregory Benford.

In the evening there were further demonstrations and talks, including sodium acetate crystals (ChEBI:32594) (with Theodore Gray – see picture above) and a talk by Bob Metcalfe (of Metcalfe law fame) on the “Enernet: Internet Lessons for Solving Energy”. One of the take home messages from this is that the energy industry should be much more decentralised (like the internet is). Bob argued that the huge centralised powerplants we have today are beginning to look as dated and obsolete as mainframe computers.

So in summary, saturday at scifoo was a fantastic action-packed day, started early in the morning and went on late into the night. It’s almost impossible to capture it all in a blog post, so if you’re interested my scifoo 2009 photo set on flickr has more details. My mind has been blown into lots of little pieces again – thanks to all the organisers and participants for another great day.


  1. Kell, D., & Oliver, S. (2004). Here is the evidence, now what is the hypothesis? The complementary roles of inductive and hypothesis-driven science in the post-genomic era BioEssays, 26 (1), 99-105 DOI: 10.1002/bies.10385

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]

November 27, 2008

Blogging Professors: Douglas Kell at the BBSRC

Filed under: web of science — Duncan Hull @ 12:53 pm
Tags: ,

Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research CouncilTo add to the growing list of big boffins with blogs, Professor Douglas Kell has launched his BBSRC hosted blog. So has blogging finally gone from an innovative underground movement to grown-up mainstream everyday technology, as recently suggested in The Economist? How many more senior scientists might we see blogging in the future? Take a look at blogs.bbsrc.ac.uk to find out..

I asked Doug if he would consider blogging, for the Science blogging challenge posed by Nature Publishing Group, so thanks Doug for being open minded and willing to experiment, you’ve also been entered for the Open Laboratory 2008 competition too. It will be interesting to see what the result of this project will be…


  1. Zoe Corbyn (2008). New BBSRC chief executive enters blogosphere, Times Higher Education, 11th December 2008.

September 29, 2008

BBSRC UK Roadshow, Autumn 2008

bend in the roadThe Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is on the road this autumn in London, Manchester, Bristol, Glasgow and Cambridge. Potential applicants, grant holders and any other interested parties are strongly urged to attend and learn about BBSRC’s plans for the future including new procedures and new Committee structures. The road shows will also provide an opportunity to meet the new members of the BBSRC Senior Management team.

From an original email sent by Alf Game, Deputy Director of Science and Technology Group. See BBSRC Roadshows.

The BBSRC has revised its future strategic priorities and the way in which they will be delivered through responsive mode peer review and is holding a series of road shows “Enabling the Delivery of Excellence with Impact” at various locations across the UK. (more…)

August 22, 2008

If Science was an Olympic Sport…

Olympic Rings by JL08A fictional scene from the future: The Olympic games, London 2012. A new candidate sport is on trial, joining skateboarding, rugby and golf at their debut Olympic games. It is challenging discipline called Science, a sport more ancient than Olympia itself. The crowd awaits eagerly in the all new Boris Johnson Olympic stadium. It has taken more than 2000 years just to convince the International Olympic Committee that Science is worthy of being an Olympic sport. The big day has finally arrived but the judges are still arguing about how to award the medals to scientists. Despite all the metrics involved, it’s all very very subjective. The games go ahead anyway, and there are lots of exciting new events: (more…)

August 12, 2008

Who funds Science in Britain?

Unon Jack by bambi851The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is full of scientists. All kinds of scientists working in biology, chemistry and physics, as well as plenty of mathematicians, engineers and technologists too work in the UK. They make their living in good old Blighty, pushing forward the boundaries of human knowledge, wherever and whenever they can. Nanotechnology, astronomy, molecular biology, primatology, climatology and lots of other ‘ologies can all be found in Britain. Who is it that pays them and how much money do they spend? Here is a list of funding bodies in 2008, along with their annual budgets and chief executives. It is not a comprehensive list, because it does not include all charities, European money and privately funded Science. However, it does cover most of the larger funding bodies… (more…)

July 25, 2008

How to spend a £400 million Science budget

A thought experiment with lots of money

The Queens Ahead by canonsnapperThe Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the United Kingdom’s funding agency for academic research and training in the non-clinical life sciences. It supports a total of around 1600 scientists and 2000 research students in universities and institutes in the UK. The head of our laboratory, Douglas Kell, has recently been appointed Chief Executive of the BBSRC [1]. Congratulations Doug, we wish you the very best in your new job. Now, according to bbsrc.ac.uk, their annual budget is a cool £400 million (just short of $800 million or €500 million). This has left me wondering, how would you spend a £400 million Science budget for the life sciences? For the purposes of this article, imagine it was you that had been put in charge of said budget, and Prime Minister Gordon Brown (texture like sun) had given you, yes YOU, a big bag of cash to distribute as you see fit. A mouth-watering prospect, I think you’ll agree. Here, is my personal opinion of how, in my dreams, I would spend the money. (more…)

March 5, 2008

Cheminformatics 2.0

Some brief notes on and links to presentations from the MCISB / NaCTeM workshop on Chemical Informatics and Data-driven Science, held at the MIB in Manchester, 4th March 2008. (more…)

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