10 year anniversary…

Graduation, University of WalesTHIS week has seen many graduation ceremonies at the university, all imbibed with veritable Hogwartian pomp. It makes me reflect on my own graduation, which curiously enough was exactly 10 years ago this week.

I was full of excitement in the event of getting my BSc. It meant a lot to me, I’d worked ‘fairly’ hard for it, I’d gotten a good grade and was ready to go off and try to be ‘a scientist’. I hadn’t yet figured out how I was going to do that; it would turn out that I would use do a Master’s degree whilst I decided what I wanted to do (which was in fact to go and do a PhD; how inventive of me).

The degree ceremony, held in both Welsh and English (it was the University of Wales after all), was excellent; they actually took the route less travelled and entertained us. There were musical recitals, an award winning Harpist, some meaningful words of wisdom and the usual traditional grandeur. No pulling of fingers or such silliness.

It is in stark contract to the format of the ceremony at my current university, at least five years ago when I graduated with my PhD, where they decided that the appropriate means to celebrate the achievement was to talk about how much research funding the university had received, and what a good job so-and-so vice chancellor was doing. No one cared, everyone just wanted to get their few seconds on stage and be off.

I was of course, like all newly minted graduates, full of cock and bull, ideological and desperately wet behind the ears. I’ve yet to meet a graduate who doesn’t think they know it all, but as is ever the case, within a year, most graduates realise they know nothing. As the brighter ones will admit, ‘the first step on the road to wisdom is admitting that you don’t know anything’; a derivation, I guess, from Socrates’, ‘The only thing I know, is that I don’t know anything’.

Ten years on and I’m still in contact with some of those with whom I graduated, all of whom seem to be doing well in their lives and careers. I remember being reticent to refer to myself as ‘a scientist’ at that time, being worried of being a fraud (an uncharacteristic display of graduate humility); yet I’m glad to say that I can now refer to myself as a scientist in the truest sense, which I think I would have been happy about back then.

Once again I am faced with a summer during which I will have to make some difficult decisions. Either I step up to the next rung of the ladder and become a lectureship somewhere, or I step to the side and find another way to ply my trade, all be it away from the bench.

Still, at least I feel confident saying that the only thing I know, is that I don’t know anything.



Koi pond WHEN I was part of the huge legion that didn’t go out and buy the newly released iPhone, but instead bought an iTouch, I revelled in my uniqueness, my individuality, my un-erring sense of fashion. Pah, anyone can by an iPhone I thought; I wanted the technology that was almost completely locked, with under-developed software and little use beyond a few snazzy features.

One such snazzy feature was embodied in an early app called ‘Koi Pond’, where the iTouch miraculously became a simulation Koi Pond. I could peer into the magical device and the little Koi swimming amongst the lillies; I could interact with them, ripple the surface. It was really cool for a whole 5 minutes. Then it was boring.

This all changed soon enough, with software updates, the opening up of the OS platform to third party developers and general usability. I was quids in; I saw the development coming and made the right choice. At the end of last week, Apple finally released the much awaited OS 3.0 for iPhone (for free) and iTouch (at cost, of course). I updated on Sunday morning and was pleasantly enjoying the cut and paste (never was cut and paste seen as such a novelty in recent times!) and the Spotlight function allowing me to search my whole iTouch for keywords.

Yes, this fun lasted all of about 2 hours. Upon arriving at a friend’s house on Sunday afternoon, I visited their pond to look for fish. The iTouch slipped from my unsecured shirt pocket into the pond, sinking into the mirk at the bottom.

My digital Koi had had the last laugh as they joined their brethren, before fizzling out never to be seen again.


One of the joys of heading out into British woodlands in May is the profusion of Bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta), an ebullient blue-purple woodland carpet, ‘like the blue sky, breaking up through the earth’ (Byron). The UK has 25% of the world’s population of Bluebells, and justly they’re a protected species – not to be picked, but to be enjoyed in their natural environment.

Bluebell woodland

These pictures were taken in the Lake District on Saturday


Illiberalism in rational causes…

The blogdom of skeptics has been in uproar over the ruling of Mr Justice Eady in the libel case Simon Singh vs British Chiropractic Association (BCA). The case has already been covered extensively, by The Lay Scientist (background | verdict) and Jack-of-Kent (background | verdict).

In Simon Singh’s book, ‘Trick or treatment: alternative medicine on trial’ (review by The Times here), he systematically addresses the pseudoscience of numerous alternative healthcare measures, including Chiropractry, about whom he said:

“The British Chiropractic Association claims that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying, even though there is not a jot of evidence. This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments.”

The ruling hinged on Simon Singh’s use of the word ‘bogus’, which means counterfeit or fake, spurious, or bad. Unfortunately, when you start thinking about it meaning ‘counterfeit’ then this infers some degree of fraudulent use, or deliberate misuse, which is how the judge chose to rule in this case. Mr Justice Eady decided (evidently prior to the hearing had commenced) that the definition would be taken as consciously and deliberately dishonest. In this case it rules in the favour of the BCA where, by the judge’s own reasoning, Simon Singh has libelled them by labelling them deliberately dishonest. It seems strange that a judge can make any objective ruling on the definition of such a word in this case; Mr Justice Eady has effectively ‘cherry-picked’ the evidence by looking at the word ‘bogus’ within a paragraph, without including the evidential support of context from the chapter as a whole.

As I have discovered through word battles myself, different people lean towards different definitions of words when multiple definitions are available. An example might be ‘tautology’, which in one vein can be a rhetorical definition of ‘using different words to say the same thing twice’, yet can also have a meaning in logic of ‘a statement that is necessarily true’. What distinguishes the uses is the context in which they are used, and this seemed to be apparent in this case.

Continue reading “Illiberalism in rational causes…”

Basic research…


TODAY ‘The Scientist’ reported that the UK government is going to bail out biotech, investing £750 million ($1.1 billion) to bolster this and other ailing commercial science and technology sectors. This isn’t a bad thing, per se, but at what cost?

Well perhaps it comes at the cost of ‘basic research’:

Government funding for basic research, however, will receive no additional funds. Buried deep on page 130 of the new budget, the government called on the public research councils, including the MRC and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, to reallocate £106 million ($154 million) of their pre-existing budgets to support key areas with predicted economic potential — a plan which leaves some science lobby groups less than happy.

They’re going to move money around, rather than putting more into the areas of basic scientific research. In contrast, the US government’s economic stimulus package has fed money into the National Institute of Health (NIH) and National Science Foundation (NSF), between whom most of my US scientist friends are funded in their basic scientific research.

But what do we mean by ‘basic scientific research’? The term, synonymous with fundamental or pure research, is first and foremost a quest for knowledge; it has no specific end goal or commercialisation, i.e. a practical application cannot be envisaged. We might also consider research that may yield a commercial application after 10 -50 years to be basic research too (I put my own current technologies work in this bracket). Applied research, in contrast, is work that is aimed directly at a specific commercial end, such as development of a particular drug.

So what’s the problem in the UK, why are we bothered?

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Three cups of tea….


A Pakistani friend of mine recently lent me a book called ‘Three Cups of Tea’. At the time I had absolutely no idea how famous this book now is, it’s been on the New York Times best sellers list for 109 weeks. Reading it has been a formative experience.

It is the story of Greg Mortenson who, in 1993, after a failed attempt on K2, wandered accidentally into a small Baltistani village in the Karakoram mountains. The name of the village was Korphe (Kor-fay), and his experience here would change his and, by dint of this, tens of thousands of people’s lives in this impoverished region of the North-West frontier of Pakistan. The kindness of the Korphe villagers, their willingness to give Greg so much, when they themselves had so little, truly humbled him; thus prior to his departure, upon seeing how the children of the village were forced to write their lessons in the soil with sticks, he promised to build them a school.

The book describes how Greg returned to California, broke and living out of his car, to raise the $12,000 required to build the school. From humble beginnings, to patronage by the late multimillionaire scientist Dr Jean Hoerni and the formation of the Central Asia Institute (CAI), Greg has directed the building of 80 schools, women’s community centres and student hostels in North-West Pakistan and Afghanistan. This could only have been achieved with a very loyal team of local contacts that Greg has a natural faculty to draw towards him. The schools are built by the people of the villages with the full support of the village communities.

The emphasis of CAI schools is on the education of girls, an idea captured by the maxim, ‘If you educate a man, you educate an individual; but if you educate a woman, you educate a nation’ (Mahatma Gandhi). This lasting and indelible educational structure is at the core of improving healthcare and welfare of villagers, but furthermore, will reduce the number of illiterate and uneducated people who would otherwise provide cannon fodder for radicalism by fundamentalist clerics; a mother is less likely to give her blessing to her son’s jihad, a strong social requirement, if she is educated and literate.

The byline of the book is, ‘One man’s mission to promote peace…one school at a time’. It is a noble cause and one that I will happily support. I highly recommend that everyone read ‘Three cups of tea’. If you enjoy the book, also read some of the CAI publications (Journey of Hope), which provide updates and fantastic photography of the current and ongoing projects.

Writing about reading…

READING about writing has been a pass time for some time, but writing about reading is a first. Those who know me know that I am a passionate reader; I’ll read from an eclectic range of genres, though of course I have my favourites. But I don’t really want to write about what I read, rather, I’d like to write about how I read.

My entire life, well, teenage onwards, I have carried a rucksack or satchel wherever I go. In this bag I always have certain essentials: a notebook, pens, journals, papers and a book (or two). More recently I also carry an iTouch and mactop, and perhaps more bizarrely, a torch and a whole array of iPod, camera and mic adaptor cables. You see, on the one hand I love technology; I am an unashamed technocrat, though perhaps less so than the eminent Stephen Fry. On the other, I lament the loss of handwriting, and very much enjoy putting pen to paper, hence the notebook. One thing I can never be without, however, is some reading material.

I almost always have more reading material than I would ever have time to duly read and digest, but carry it none the less, hoping I may just absorb the material by prolonged contact. This is certainly nothing unusual, most academics and students I know have been guilty of carrying papers around for weeks, without ever actually doing more than skimming them.

Books though, what a slave to them I am, and what guilt they engender by the mere fact that I haven’t read all of them yet! The process of preparing to read a book is described quite nicely in a recent article by Mandy Brown at A List Apart; the article is not exclusively about this subject, being more to do with the process of presenting web writing in an accessible and readable manner, but she none the less echoes any sentiments I could offer:

Think of your first encounter with a book. You look at the cover to get a sense of it, then perhaps flip to the back or the flaps to skim the publisher’s copy. Opening the book, you might glance at the title page, or quickly run your eyes over the table of contents. Maybe you peek into the back to check the page count, or casually assess the weight of the book in your hand. If it’s a hardcover, you might take the dust jacket off, lest it get in the way.

Most readers engage in at least one and usually several of these behaviors—they’re a kind of pre-reading ritual, part of the culture of books. And yet they serve an important purpose as well, in that they ease the transition between looking and reading. They help the reader establish interest, and they serve as an invitation to reading, setting the stage for the act that follows.

I spend a lot of time looking, holding and admiring books. People say, “Don’t judge a book by its cover”; I’m not sure which people, but people say this. Now I don’t think anyone would say that a book is crap based solely on how it looks, but they’ll certainly pass it by. Time is so limited now, so precious. If we’re going to invest our much prized spare time by reading the labour of one author, amongst so many others, then there has to be a draw. In the absence of the Times Literary Supplement, New York Book Review or some other trusted review of current literature, how else do we pick out books if not by them grabbing our eyes?

Continue reading “Writing about reading…”