Private Eye parodies Peterson’s purple prose

If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.

You can fool some of the people some of the time – and that’s enough to make a decent living

WC Fields (1880-1946)

I got the new issue of Private Eye today and was tickled by their effortless lampooning of Jordan Peterson‘s tediously overwrought writing. Just like the worst of the postmodernists he so despises (and Alan Sokal so memorably ridiculed),  Peterson’s needlessly ornate, florid and flaccid prose is a triumph of (poor) style over substance…


“…it is a wise rule and good rule to hold back from skating when there is no ice visible on the water.”

Indeed. And thus endeth the lesson.


“The surface was invented by the devil” Nanoscience@Surfaces 2018


The title of this post is taken from an (in)famous statement from Wolfgang Pauli:

God made solids, but surfaces were the work of the devil!

That diabolical nature of surfaces is, however, exactly what makes them so intriguing, so fascinating, and so rich in physics and chemistry. And it’s also why surface science plays such an integral and ubiquitous role in so many areas of condensed matter physics and nanoscience. That ubiquity is reflected in the name of a UK summer school for PhD students, nanoscience@Surfaces 2018, held at the famed Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge last week, and at which I had the immense pleasure of speaking. More on that soon. Let’s first dig below the surface of surfaces just a little.

(In passing, it would be remiss of me not to note that the Cavendish houses a treasure trove of classic experimental “kit” and apparatus that underpinned many of the greatest discoveries in physics and chemistry. Make sure that you venture upstairs if you ever visit the lab. (Thanks for the advice to do just that, Giovanni!))


Although I could classify myself, in terms of research background, as a nanoscientist, a chemical physicist, or (whisper it) even a physical chemist at times, my first allegiance is, and always will be, with surface science. I’m fundamentally a surface scientist. For one thing, the title of my PhD thesis (from, gulp, 1994) nails my colours to the mast: A Scanning Tunnelling Microscopy Investigation of the Interaction of Sulphur with Semiconductor Surfaces. [1]

(There. I said it. For quite some time, surface science was targetted by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) as an area of funding whose slice of the public purse should be reduced, so not only was it unfashionable to admit to being a surface scientist, it could be downright damaging to one’s career. Thankfully we live in slightly more enlightened times. For now.)

Pauli’s damning indictment of surfaces stems fundamentally from the broken symmetry that the truncation of a solid represents. In the bulk, each atom is happily coordinated with its neighbours and, if we’re considering crystals (as we so very often do in condensed matter physics and chemistry), there’s a very well-defined periodicity and pattern established by the combination of the unit cell, the basis, and the lattice vectors. But all of that gets scrambled at the surface. Cut through a crystal to expose a particular surface — and not all surfaces are created equal by any means — and the symmetry of the bulk is broken; those atoms at the surface have lost their neighbours.

Atoms tend to be rather gregarious beasties so they end up in an agitated, high energy state when they lose their neighbours. Or, in slightly more technical (and rather less anthropomorphic) terms, creation of a surface is associated with a thermodynamic free energy cost; we have to put in work to break bonds. (If this wasn’t the case, objects all around us would spontaneously cleave to form surfaces. I’m writing (some of) this on a train back from London (after a fun evening at the LIYSF), having tremendous difficulty trying to drink coffee as the train rocks back and forth. A spontaneously cleaving cup would add to my difficulties quite substantially…)

In their drive to reduce that free energy, atoms and molecules at surfaces will form a bewildering array of different patterns and phases [2]. The classic example is the (7×7) reconstruction of the Si(111) surface, one of the more complicated atomic rearrangements there is. I’ve already lapsed into the surface science vernacular there, but don’t let the nomenclature put you off if you’re not used to it. “Reconstruction” is the rearranging of atoms at a surface to reduce its free energy; the (111) defines the direction in which we cut through the bulk crystal to expose the surface; and the (7×7) simply refers to the size of the unit cell (i.e. the basic repeating unit or “tile”) of the reconstructed surface as compared to the arrangement on the unreconstructed (111) plane. Here’s a schematic of the (7×7) unit cell [3] to give you an idea of the complexity involved…


The arrangements and behaviour of atoms and molecules at surfaces are very tricky indeed to understand and predict. There has thus been a vast effort over many decades, using ever more precise techniques (both experimental and theoretical), to pin down just how adsorbed atoms and molecules bond, vibrate, move, and desorb. And although surface science is now a rather mature area, it certainly isn’t free of surprises and remains a vibrant field of study. One reason for this vibrancy is that as we make particles smaller and smaller — a core activity in nanoscience — their surface-to-volume ratio increases substantially. The devilish behaviour of surfaces is thus at the very heart of nanoscience, as reflected time and again in the presentations at the nanoscience@Surfaces 2018 summer school.

Unfortunately, I could only attend the Wednesday and Thursday morning of the summer school. It was an honour to be invited to talk and I’d like to take this opportunity to repeat my thanks to the organising committee including, in particular, Andy Jardine (Cambridge), Andrew (Tom) Thomas (Manchester), Karen Syres and Joe Smerdon (UCLAN) who were the frontline organisers in terms of organising my accomodation, providing the necessary A/V requirements, and sorting out the scheduling logistics. My lecture, Scanning Probes Under The Microscope, was on the Wednesday morning and, alongside the technical details of the science, covered themes I’ve previously ranted about at this blog, including the pitfalls of image interpretation and the limitations of the peer review process.

Much more important, however, were the other talks during the school. I regretfully missed Monday’s and Tuesday’s presentations (including my Nottingham colleague Rob Jones’ intriguingly named “Getting it off and getting it on“) which had a theory and photoemission flavour, respectively. Wednesday, however, was devoted to my first love in research: scanning probe microscopy, and it was great to catch up on recent developments in the field from the perspective of colleagues who work on different materials systems to those we tend to study at Nottingham.

Thursday morning’s plenary lecture/tutorial was from Phil Woodruff (Warwick), one of not only the UK’s, but the world’s, foremost (surface) scientists and someone who has pioneered a number of  elegant techniques and tools for surface analysis (including, along with Rob Jones and other co-workers, the X-ray standing wave method described in the video at the foot of this post.)

Following Phil’s talk, there was a session dedicated to careers. Although I was not quite in the target demographic for this session, I nonetheless hung around for the introductions from those involved because I was keen to get an insight into just how the “careers outside academia” issue would be addressed. Academia is of course not the be-all-and-end-all when it comes to careers. Of the 48 PhD researchers I counted — an impressive turn-out given that 50 were registered for the summer school — only 10 raised their hand when asked if they were planning on pursuing a career in academia.

Thirteen years ago, I was a member of the organising committee for an EPSRC-funded summer school in surface science held at the University of Nottingham. We also held a careers-related session during the school and, if memory serves (…and that’s definitely not a given), when a similar question was asked of the PhD researchers in attendance, a slightly higher percentage (maybe ~ 33%) were keen on the academic pathway. While academia certainly does not want to lose the brightest and the best, it’s encouraging that there’s a movement away from the archaic notion that to not secure a permanent academic post/tenure somehow represents failure.

It was also fun for me to compare and contrast the Nottingham and Cambridge summer schools from the comfortable perspective of a delegate rather than an organiser. Here’s the poster for the Nottingham school thirteen years ago…


…and here’s an overview of the talks and sessions that were held back in 2005:


A key advance in probe microscopy in the intervening thirteen year period has been the ultrahigh resolution force microscopy pioneered by the IBM Zurich research team (Leo Gross et al), as described here. This has revolutionised imaging, spectroscopy, and manipulation of matter at the atomic and (sub)molecular levels.

Another key difference between UK surface science back in 2005 and its 2018 counterpart is that the Diamond synchrotron produced “first light” (well, first user beam) in 2007. The Diamond Light Source is an exceptionally impressive facility. (The decision to construct DLS at the Harwell Campus outside Oxford was underscored by a great deal of bitter political debate back in the late nineties, but that’s a story for a whole other blog post. Or, indeed, series of blog posts.) The UK surface science (and nanoscience, and magnetism, and protein crystallography, and X-ray scattering, and…) community is rightly extremely proud of the facility. Chris Nicklin (DLS), Georg Held (Reading), Wendy Flavell (Manchester) and the aforementioned Prof. Woodruff (among others) each focussed on the exciting surface science that is made possible only via access to tunable synchrotron radiation of the type provided by DLS.

I was gutted to have missed Stephen Jenkins‘ review and tutorial on the application of density functional theory to surfaces. DFT is another area that has progressed quite considerably over the last thirteen years, with a particular evolution of methods to treat dispersion interactions (i.e. van der Waals/London forces). It’s not always the case that DFT calculations/predictions are treated with the type of healthy skepticism that is befitting a computational technique whereby the choice of functional makes all the difference but, again, that’s a topic for another day…

Having helped organise a PhD summer school myself, I know just how much effort is involved in running a successful event. I hope that all members of the organising committee — Tom, Joe, Andy, Karen, Neil, Holly, Kieran, and Giovanni — can now have a relaxing summer break, safe in the knowledge that they have helped to foster links and, indeed, friendships, among the next generation of surface scientists and nanoscientists.


[1](a) Sulphur. S.u.l.p.h.u.r. Not the frankly offensive sulfur that I had to use in the papers submitted to US journals. That made for painful proof-reading. (b) I have no idea why I didn’t include mention of photoemission in the title of the thesis, given that it forms the guts of Chapter 5. I have very fond memories of carrying out those experiments at the (now defunct) Daresbury Synchrotron Radiation Source (SRS) just outside Warrington in the UK. Daresbury was superseded by the Diamond Light Source (DLS), discussed in this Sixty Symbols video.

[2] Assuming that there’s enough thermal energy to go around and that they’re not kinetically trapped in a particular state.

[3] Schematic taken from the PhD thesis of Mick Phillips, University of Nottingham (2004).

LIYSF 2018: Science Without Borders*

Better the pride that resides
In a citizen of the world
Than the pride that divides
When a colourful rag is unfurled

From Territories. Track 5 of Rush’s Power Windows (1985). Lyrics: Neil Peart.


Last night I had the immense pleasure and privilege of giving a plenary lecture for the London International Youth Science Forum. 2018 marks the 60th annual forum, a two-week event that brings together 500 students (aged 16 – 21) from, this year, seventy different countries…


The history of the forum is fascinating. Embarrassingly, until I received the invitation to speak I was unaware of the LIYSF’s impressive and exciting efforts over many decades to foster and promote, in parallel, science education and international connections. The “science is global” message is at the core of the Forum’s ethos, as described at the LIYSF website:

The London International Youth Science Forum was the brainchild of the late Philip S Green. In the aftermath of the Second World War an organisation was founded in Europe by representatives from Denmark, Czech Republic, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom in an effort to overcome the animosity resulting from the war. Plans were made to set up group home-to-home exchanges between schools and communities in European countries. This functioned with considerable success and in 1959 Philip Green decided to provide a coordinated programme for groups from half a dozen European countries and, following the belief that ‘out of like interests the strongest friendships grow.’ He based the programme on science.

The printed programme for LIYSF 2018 includes a message from the Prime Minster…


It’s a great shame that the PM’s message above doesn’t mention at all LIYSF’s work in breaking down borders and barriers between scientists in different countries since its inception in 1959. But given that her government and her political party have been responsible for driving the appalling isolationism and, in its worst excesses, xenophobia of Brexit, it’s not at all surprising that she might want to gloss over that aspect of the Forum…

The other slightly irksome aspect of May’s message, and something I attempted to counter during the lecture last night, is the focus on “demand for STEM skills”, as if non-STEM subjects were somehow of intrinsically less value. Yes, I appreciate that it’s a science forum, and, yes, I appreciate that the LIYSF students are largely focussed on careers in science and engineering. But we need to encourage a greater appreciation of the value of non-STEM subjects. I, for one, was torn between opting to do an English or a physics degree at university. As I’ve banged on about previously, the A-level system frustratingly tends to exacerbate this artificial “two cultures” divide between STEM subjects and the arts and humanities. We need science and maths. And we need economics, philosophy, sociology, English lit, history, geography, modern (and not-so-modern) languages…

The arrogance of a certain breed of STEM student (or researcher or lecturer) who thinks that the ability to do complicated maths is the pinnacle of intellectual achievement also helps to drive this wedge between the disciplines. And yet those particular students, accomplished though they may well be in vector calculus, contour integration, and/or solving partial differential equations, often flounder completely when asked to write five-hundred words that are reasonably engaging and/or entertaining.

Borders and boundaries, be they national or disciplinary, encourage small-minded, insular thinking. Encouragingly, there was none of that on display last night. After the hour-long lecture, I was blown away, time and again, by the intelligent, perceptive, and, at times, provocative (in a very good way!) questions from the LIYSF students. After an hour and half of questions, security had to kick us out of the theatre because it was time to lock up.

Clare Elwell, who visited Nottingham last year to give a fascinating and inspirational Masterclass lecture on her ground-breaking research for our Physics & Astronomy students, is the President of the LIYSF. It’s no exaggeration to say that the impact of the LIYSF on Clare’s future, when she attended as a student, was immense. I’ll let Clare explain:

 I know how impactful and inspiring these experiences can be, as I attended the Forum myself as a student over thirty years ago. It was here that I was first introduced to Medical Physics – an area of science which I have pursued as a career ever since. Importantly, the Forum also opened my eyes to the power of collaboration and communication across scientific disciplines and national borders to address global challenges — something which has formed a key element of my journey in science, and which the world needs now more than ever.

(That quote is also taken from the LIYSF 2018 Programme.)

My lecture was entitled “Bit from It: Manipulating matter bond by bond”“. A number of students asked whether I’d make the slides available, which, of course, is my pleasure (via that preceding link). In addition, some students asked about the physics underpinning the “atomic force macroscope [1]” (and the parallels with its atomic force microscope counterpart) that I used as a demonstration in the talk:


(Yes, the coffee is indeed an integral component of the experimental set-up [2]).

Unfortunately, due to the size of the theatre only a small number of the students could really see the ‘guts’ of the “macroscope”. I’m therefore going to write a dedicated post in the not-too-distant future on just how it works, its connections to atomic force microscopy, and its much more advanced sibling the LEGOscope (the result of a third year undergraduate project carried out by two very talented students).

The LIYSF is a huge undertaking and it’s driven by the hard work and dedication of a wonderful team of people. I’ve got to say a big thank you to those of that team I met last night and who made my time at LIYSF so very memorable: Director Richard Myhill for the invitation (and Clare (Elwell) for the recommendation) and for sorting out all of the logistics of my visit; Sam Thomas and Simran Mohnani, Programme Liaison; Rhia Patel and Vilius Uksas, Engagement Manager and Videographer, respectively. (It’s Vilius you can see with the camera pointed in my direction in the photo at the top there.); Victoria Sciandro (Deputy Host. Victoria also had the task of summarising my characteristically rambling lecture before the Q&A session started and did an exceptional job, given the incoherence of the source material); and James, whose surname I’ve embarrassingly forgotten but who was responsible for all of the audio-video requirements, the sound and the lighting. He did an exceptional job. Thank you, James. (I really hope I’ve not forgotten anyone. If I have, my sincere apologies.)

Although this was my first time at the LIYSF, I sincerely hope it won’t be my last. It was a genuinely inspiring experience to spend time with such enthusiastic and engaging students. The future of science is in safe hands.

We opened the post with Rush. So let’s bring things full circle and close with that Toronto trio… [3]

* “Science Without Borders” is also the name of the agency that funds the PhD research of Filipe Junquiera in the Nottingham Nanoscience Group. As this blog post on Filipe’s journey to Nottingham describes, he’s certainly crossed borders.

[1] Thanks to my colleague Chris Mellor for coining the “atomic force macroscope” term.

[2] It’s not. (The tiresome literal-mindedness of some online never ceases to amaze me. Best to be safe than sorry.)

[3] Great to be asked a question from the floor by a fellow Rush fan last night. And he was Canadian to boot!

Social Media and Academics: Beyond the Brand

I enjoyed Sara Custer’s thought-provoking Times Higher Education article on the perils of social media for academics  and was prompted to add my tuppence-worth. Here’s the post in question for those outside the paywall…

Sara Custer’s timely and thought-provoking feature article on the ups and downs of social media in academia struck a loud, resonant chord with me. A few years back I deleted my Twitter account, subsequently blitzed my personal YouTube channel, and put my blog on an extended hiatus. This act of social media suicide – as my soon-to-be-teenage daughter likes to refer to it – was prompted by a number of the factors described, or alluded to, in Custer’s article: the toxicity, the time-wasting, and the sheer, utter stupidity of indulging in pointless playground spats online.

My personal Twitter nadir came in a 1:00 am exchange with Louise Mensch where her riposte to a carefully crafted tweet was “LOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOL!!!”. Followed by a tweenage meme. Sigh. What was I doing with my life? (On the plus side, I was blocked by the legend-in-his-own-lunchtime that is Milo Yiannopoulos after just two tweets. With Deepak Chopra, one tweet was enough… (Add smiley emoji to taste.))

I’m not going to rehearse the reasons behind my disconnection and distancing from social media. (For those masochistic enough to be interested in all the tedious detail, it’s available at the now resurrected blog.) Nor am I going to trot out some trite, patronising, vacuous, TED-esque “Twelve Reasons You Too Should Shut Down Your Social Media Accounts” self-help guff. (Not this time at least. I’m not entirely blameless when it comes to the listicle thing, however.) Social media are just tools for communication. And, as Custer highlighted, not only do (most) academics like to communicate, communication is our core ‘business’; our raison d’etre. We also tend to be a fairly argumentative species. From that perspective, the social media ecosystem is our natural habitat in many ways.

But one aspect of social media engagement that is still not sufficiently well-recognised by universities in their headlong rush to encourage as many of their academics, and, increasingly, students, to connect online (so as to maximise that all-important impact factor) is just how viciously toxic it can get. And, make no mistake, that toxicity can bleed offline into real life. While Custer’s article highlights how universities consider the potential effects of social media posts and profiles on their brand (both positive and negative), many of those august institutions seem rather less concerned about highlighting the downsides of a social media profile to their staff and, even more worryingly, are not always as supportive as they could be when things go wrong. (That’s not a veiled criticism of the University of Nottingham (where I’m based), by the way. The School here is very supportive and our HoS is active on a variety of social media platforms and well aware of the risks).

What used to be the preserve of cesspits like 4chan is increasingly overground online, polluting mainstream sites such as YouTube and Twitter. Whitney Phillips, Angela Nagle, and Mike Wendling have each very convincingly argued this point in “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things”, “Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right”, and “Alt-Right: From 4chan to the White House”, respectively. And yet when I speak at academic meetings and workshops whose focus is the application and exploitation of social media, I find that there is often a worrying lack of appreciation of just how bad it can get. Mention of GamerGate and Anita Sarkeesian, for example, draws blank stares and a lack of raised hands when I ask those in attendance if they’re familiar with the torrents of abuse and threats that Sarkeesian and others have received. Here’s just one week of Sarkeesian’s Twitter feed from a few years back. I also strongly recommend this video to any student or academic thinking about posting their research online.

I’m a middle-aged physicist whose research focuses on pushing, poking, and prodding single atoms. And I’m a bloke. As compared to a female PhD student in, oh, let’s say, gender studies, I have it ridiculously easy indeed when it comes to communicating my research online. But it’s not just gender studies that’s in the firing line. Certain online gurus, including the lobster- and dragon-fixated Jordan B Peterson, would have it that entire schools of education, sociology, English, and swathes of the humanities are all deeply suspect at best (and fundamentally corrupt at worst), and, as befits those champions of free speech, should be shut down forthwith. And Peterson, for one, has a substantial flock hanging on his every word.

University management and funding bodies need to inform themselves about just how viciously toxic it can get on social media. Too often, their perception seems to be that there’s an adoring public “out there” waiting with bated breath to hear about the latest research findings. This is breathtakingly naïve. For many, academics and experts are part of the problem, not the solution. Universities need to start thinking beyond the brand.





Jess Wade: Scientist on a Mission

I got an e-mail with a link to an article in today’s Guardian about the irrepressible and inspiring Jess Wade just before I went to get my afternoon cup of tea. I’ve rushed back, tea in hand, to quickly blog and say how delighted I was to see Jess’ efforts recognised not only by my favourite newspaper — I know, I know, typical sandal-wearing, muesli-munching, beardy, lefty, Cultural Marxist, Guardian-reading academic [1] — but also by the recent award of the Institute of Physics’ Daphne Jackson prize.

As the Guardian article describes, Jess is a postdoc working in the field of organic electronics at Imperial College. I have been aware of Jess’ work and her efforts in public engagement and the promotion of physics to girls for quite some time but most recently met her at a SciFoo ‘unconference’ at the Googleplex, Mountain View, CA (which was …checks diary…almost a year ago. Wow. Time flies.) Jess led a session on gender balance and diversity in science and it was easily the most energetic and engaging session of the entire conference (and that’s saying something, given the competition).

I had brought a copy of Angela Saini’s Inferior with me to read on the plane to SciFoo. Inferior, a t-shirt of whose cover Jess is proudly wearing in the photo accompanying the Guardian article, was deservedly Physics World’s Book Of The Year 2017. (Here’s Jess’ review). Jess had brought about ten copies of Inferior with her to the SciFoo event which she distributed for free at the session! (I should stress that Jess is neither on commission nor did she have a grant from which to buy the books — she bought them with money out of her own pocket.)

I am pleased to say that Jess will be coming to Nottingham Physics & Astronomy later this year to give a talk on her research and that Angela Saini will be speaking to the Science Faculty here for International Women’s Day 2019.

Now, usually the last place you want to spend any time online is below the line, even when it comes to The Guardian’s comments section (as Philip Ball has pointed out). But it’s worth scanning down through the comments under Jess’ article for comedy value alone. The same tedious, uninformed, unscientific, zombie ‘arguments’ about gender balance that are rebutted so well in Inferior (and in Cordelia Fine’s work) are trotted out by rather disgruntled individuals who have a particularly buzzy bee in their bonnet about the natural order of things. I particularly liked this exchange:


I’d really like to hope that JohnJNorris’ comment up there is a pitifully weak attempt at a joke. But given the below-the-line commentary that accompanies virtually any article on gender in science, it’s not against the odds at all that JohnJ is being deathly serious.

“Outrunner’s” riposte is priceless in any case…

[1] OK, most of that’s true. But not the sandals. Definitely not the sandals. I’ve never worn sandals in my life. *shudder* And, to be honest, I’m really not quite certain what a Cultural Marxist is. Or does. But, apparently, academia is absolutely infested with them.

The Aussie Pink Floyd Podcast #4

(…or should that be The Aussie Pinkcast?)

Last Tuesday I visited my friend Dave Domminney Fowler, guitarist with the Australian Pink Floyd, singer, keyboardist, drummer, songwriter, sound engineer, computer programmer, digital audio enthusiast, MIDI expert, self-confessed geek, and all-round obscenely talented bloke, at his home-cum-recording-studio in Sidcup, just outside London, to record a couple of podcasts.

Dave and I had a blast…

Not only is Dave an exceptional musician, but as I’ve mentioned before, he could very easily steal the mantle of “nicest guy in rock” from a certain Dave Grohl. He and I spent six or so hours playing guitar and nattering at length over copious amounts of tea. (It should be said that Dave has one or two guitars at his disposal…


…and that’s certainly not all of ’em.)

The first of those podcasts, #4 in the Australian Pink Floyd series, was uploaded yesterday. Here’s the YouTube version, but it’s also available via a stream at the Aussie Pink Floyd site and via iTunes. Be warned, it gets a little bit “physics-y” in the first half — Dave and I are both massive Fourier analysis fans so we got perhaps (possibly, maybe) a little too carried away by the technical detail. It all settles down in the second half…

The second podcast was for Dave’s upcoming new (and yet unrevealed…) project. This featured discussions about social media (and social media shaming), tribalism, the Peterson-Harris ‘debate’ that Dave attended the night before, thunderf00t, sexism, and the greatest ever guitarists. (Some of Dave’s choices really surprised me. A man of eclectic tastes…) And that was just for starters. If and when the podcast appears online, I’ll certainly blog about it!

Thank you, Dave, for such a great day in Sidcup. (And there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write…)