Brand New Thinking?

There’s a recent article on the Research Fortnight website describing UKRI’s, ahem, radical and daring new branding campaign, which apparently incorporates a Tetris-esque intermeshing of the logos of the Research Councils, as demonstrated in the video embedded below…

Reaction to the rebrand has not been overly enthusiastic.

A helpful 73 page document available from the UKRI website details just how, why, and where the brands should be used and includes such gems of the marketing genre as:

“Our design elements are not contained but are expressive, larger than life and breaking out of the confines.”

“Our design is all about how we come together to influence change, where the design idea expresses the impact that we create. Our design assets are combined to create a bold and colourful look and feel, that evokes the gravitas of the organisation but is always dynamic and modern.”


The Emperor’s New Clothes character of the worst excesses of branding and marketing has, of course, long irked many an academic — and I’m certainly no exception — but it’s worth noting that even those in the industry have pilloried the “pretentiousness … and, in some cases, the sheer ridiculousness of...Brand Bollocks.

I recognise, of course, that marketing and branding certainly have a role to play in any venture that needs to connect with an audience, demographic, or following (see How To Win Friends and Influence People and Mutual Respect and Teamwork are Vital). But the type of blather above on “design assets” is just empty verbiage  that, despite the claims to be bold, innovative and fresh, highlights the paucity of original thinking.

Sophie Inge, the author of the piece, contacted me last week for my thoughts on UKRI’s rebranding and included some of the rant below in her Research Fortnight article.

It’s the sheer lack of originality and “boilerplate” aspect of all of this nonsense that’s so irritating. And, yet, on p.6 of the branding document we have: “We’re prepared to do things differently”.

They’ve changed the logo. That’s it. And they’re written a load of accompanying `inspirational’ bumpf to attempt to justify the £90K spent on something that looks rather like an upper-end GCSE Art/Design Technology project. That’s not doing things differently. That’s exactly what every other brand-obsessed company does.

Our brand values are collaboration, integrity, innovation and excellence” (from p6 of the branding guidelines.) Well, it’s not as if too many other companies/ organisations/ institutions have exactly those values. “Excellence”, for one, is thin on the ground.

Marketers might well pour a lot of effort into their designs, but customers – and who, exactly, are the customers/the market in this case? – actually mostly couldn’t care less. I don’t want to “engage” with a brand, or have a “relationship” with it, or be loyal to it. And I’m certainly not alone in this.

Although I appreciate the importance of some aspects of marketing, this type of rebranding exercise does worse than leave me cold. It influences me negatively about the company/institution/organisation because it’s so ephemeral, self-referential, and ultimately pointless (because we can be sure that a couple of years down the line, another rebrand is going to happen…)

Science Proves Nothing

Here’s the first, provocatively titled, lecture for this year’s “Politics, Perception, and Philosophy of Physics” module. This year, I plan to upload video here for each F34PPP session on a weekly schedule (although the best laid plans aft gang agley…)

Erratum: Around about the 43 minute mark I say “Polish group” when I mean “Czech group”. (Apologies to Pavel Jelinek et al.)

Music, Maths, and Mash-Ups

It’s been a huge pleasure and a lot of fun to host Esa Räsänen and George Datseris here at Nottingham over the last few days. Once the video of George’s seminar, “Music Time Series Analysis: Universal Structure and Its Impact on the Listening Experience“, is edited and uploaded, I’ll write a longer post expanding on Esa’s and George’s work and the reasons why they both spent some time visiting our group at Nottingham. (I’ve been following Esa’s work for quite some time now…)

In between our discussions of 1/f noise, microtiming deviations, and power spectra, Esa introduced me to some classic compositions in the “mash-up” genre, of which I was previously only vaguely familiar. That meant that I was missing out on gems like this ground-breaking Bangles-Slayer collaboration…

Thank you, Esa, for expanding my musical horizons!

More soon on the physics behind Esa and George’s visit, but for now I’ll leave you with George’s wonderfully monikered (and logo-ed) band, The Max Funk Institute. George, a professional drummer, has recently completed his PhD at, you guessed it, the Max Planck Institute. He’s clearly a polymath; music, physics, and — as the first few seconds of the video below show — acting all fall within his sphere of expertise….

Taking the Pain out of Probes*

* I have unashamedly stolen this title from my friend and erstwhile colleague at Nottingham, Richard Woolley. Rich, I hope you’ll forgive the plagiarism.  


Scanning probe microscopy is my first love when it comes to experimental science. Although I’ve spent quite a bit of time at synchrotrons over the years, I still turn to SPM first and foremost when it comes to probing the structure of matter. After all, what other technique allows us to not only see single atoms and molecules, but to interrogate them mercilessly, reaching down to the level of individual chemical bonds, and pick, prod, push, and/or pull them around a surface? What other technique enables us to capture not only the electronic structure (both filled and empty states in a single “shot”), but the vibrational “wobbles”, the potential energy landscape (of various forms), the probability density, and even the magnetic signature of a single atom or molecule (in parallel, and with energy resolutions that are in essence only thermally limited)?

And, as I suspect my fellow probe microscopists would heartily agree, what other technique is quite so damn irritating, fist-clenchingly frustrating, and hair-pullingly maddening at times?

Probe microscopists can spend hours, days, or sometimes even weeks trying to cajole the component at the very core of the microscope — the tip (or, more precisely, the atomistic structure at the very apex of the tip) — into behaving itself. We use a variety of recipes to modify the tip apex, ranging from rather gentle and delicate indentations (pushing the probe a few angstroms into the surface), picking up a molecule, or rather “tame” voltage pulses of a few volts… to plunging in, burying the probe, and ploughing a furrow across the substrate. And then we scan and hope to see atomic resolution. But even if we see atoms, it mightn’t be the right type of atomic resolution [1]. We might have a double tip (i.e. two atoms are involved in forming the image), or a triple tip, or, something else entirely


Those images above are all of the atomic structure of the Si(100) surface (as described in this video, and as sketched in the top right corner of the slide, where we’re looking down on the surface. Large circles represent atoms that are “buckled” out of the surface, creating a zig-zag pattern — technically, a c(4×2) reconstruction — of non-planar pairs of atoms (dimers).) In each case, the surface has the same atomic structure — the variations from image to image are purely tip-related. And if we find the tip in a state that doesn’t give us the image we expect or need [2] then we crash, or hammer, or pulse, or bash, and swear repeatedly until we get what we want. Sometimes — usually around five minutes to lunchtime, or 5 pm on a Friday evening — the tip gets better. Other times it gets much, much worse. So we sit there for hours, trying to recover the tip. Or we change it for a new one. And then try to coerce that into showing us atoms, or more than atoms.

But we don’t need to suffer like this. There is a better way. And finding that lower — and hopefully minimum — frustration pathway to better probe microscopy was the subject of a meeting at the Institute of Physics on Friday. Organised by Martin Castell (Oxford) and myself, the theme of the meeting was machine learning for atomic resolution scanning tunnelling mcirscopy (STM) and atomic force microscopy (AFM.) In attendance were scientists from across the UK who each wanted to move our field forward so as to take the pain away (and, of course, consequently do rather more interesting experiments/theoretical calculations as well.) Oxford, Nottingham, King’s College London, Newcastle, Loughborough, University College London, Warwick, Liverpool Physics, St. Andrews, and Swansea were each represented on the day, with apologies from SPM researchers at Bath, Lancaster, Leeds, Liverpool Chemistry, and Cambridge (who were still keen to be involved but were unfortunately otherwise engaged.)

One striking statistic that was very evident when putting together a list of invitees for the meeting was that the ultrahigh vacuum/atomic resolution scanning probe community in the UK is rather skewed towards blokes of “a certain age” (and that most definitely includes me.) It’s been suggested — by Eugenie Hunsicker (Loughborough) — that one way to attempt to address this would be to consider a collaborative incubator project, a scheme funded by the University of Bath’s Inclusion Matters programme. (Nottingham is also an Inclusion Matters grant-holder.) That is definitely a funding strategy I, for one, would like to pursue, alongside other EPSRC networking opportunities.

My slides for the meeting are embedded below. I will add the PowerPoint/pdf files for the other presenters, if and when I get permission, at the foot of this post. (Giovanni Costantini (Warwick) has already given me permission so his slides are the first there.) The core motivation for the meeting was to bring as many probe microscopists as possible together — and perhaps choosing the last working day before the start of the new academic year for many was slightly ill-advised from that perspective — to discuss strategies for ensuring that we don’t spend a lot of time “reinventing the wheel” when it comes to developing machine learning protocols. And our main objective is therefore to put together a UK-wide network of groups working on the machine-learning-enabled probe microscopy theme.

Despite the prevailing ‘wisdom’ in some deluded corners, the UK of course can’t stand alone, isolated and insular, when it comes to scientific research (or anything else for that matter.) Science is inherently international in scope, and the vast majority of research in this fair and sceptred isle thrives on collaborative activities with our colleagues outside the UK.  When it comes to machine learning in scanning probe microscopy and nanoscience, in particular, we need to pay especially close attention to the exceptionally exciting and pioneering work being done by a number of groups across the world.

Some of those key groups are listed in the PowerPoint slides embedded above, including Bob Wolkow’s research team at the University of Alberta. Bob and his colleagues are very much setting the bar for the rest of us — particularly those of us who work extensively with silicon surfaces — when it comes to embedding machine learning in not just atomic resolution imaging but single atom manipulation. As Bob describes in this engaging TEDx video (uploaded just a few days ago), the STM (“See, Touch, Move”) is becoming ever more capable; one key advance that Bob’s group — in particular, PhD student researcher Taleana Huff and her colleagues — has made is the ability to repair/edit single atomic defects[3] :

Watch the video to get an insight into just how far the UoA team have pushed forward the state of the art in what is effectively 3D printing with atoms. Bob suggests that the latest advances from his group are potentially as disruptive as the transistor was to the vacuum tube. I’d cautiously agree with that statement, although moving from a UHV low temperature environment to the “big, bad world” outside the vacuum chamber is always going to be fraught with difficulty. I am looking forward immensely to spending a couple of weeks at UoA next year to learn more about the techniques pioneered there, thanks to funding from both UoA and Nottingham’s International Collaboration Fund.

I’ll provide updates on how the machine learning SPM network is progressing in future blog posts. For now, here are the slides from Giovanni, as promised above, and from Oli Gordon (Nottingham). (Oli is also pictured in the image that kicks off this post.)

Update 07:47 26/09/2019 It was hugely remiss of me not to highlight a very important upcoming (Jan 2020) conference in Kanazawa — The First International Conference on Big Data and Machine Learning in Microscopy. My sincere apologies to the organisers — sorry, Adam et al. — for not including this in the original post.


Molecular-Scale Surface Analytics — Giovanni Costantini (Warwick)

Scanning Probe Tip State Recognition in Real-Time with Neural Networks — Oliver Gordon (Nottingham)

Machine Learning and (SI)STM — Peter Wahl (St. Andrews)

See also ““Nanoscale electronic inhomogeneity in FeSe0:4Te0:6 revealed through unsupervised machine learning”, P. Wahl et al. (submitted)

Multi-scale Computation in Nature: exploring the Interface between Computing, Synthetic Biology and Nanotechnology — Nat Krasnogor (Newcastle)

[1] …and how do we know what’s the right type of atomic resolution? That’s very much a moot point. Sometimes it’s whether the microscopist sees the same type of image as other groups have published previously. This is a slightly worrying way to do science.

[2] Note that we may not always want the highest possible spatial resolution. Different tip structures can have different densities of states, for one thing, and this can affect their ability to extract or move atoms (or molecules).

[3] Not that we’re bitter or anything, but an alumnus of the group, Peter Sharp, tried for very many months, years ago as part of his PhD, to get enough reproducibility to routinely “heal” single atom — more precisely, single dangling bond — defects in the manner that Taleana and her colleagues in Wolkow’s team have achieved. While Pete could definitely observe dangling bonds disappearing during a scan (see below — captured from Pete’s PhD thesis via my phone), which we interpreted as a transfer of a H atom from the tip, we could never quite get the transfer to happen reliably via chemomechanical force alone when we targetted a single dangling bond.







“Remember Your Humanity”

Thoughts about the upcoming Ethical Science conference at the School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Nottingham on 23rd October 2019.

This is a guest post from Andrew Gibson, Coordinator of Student/Young Pugwash UK and a University of Nottingham alumnus, about an important upcoming conference that the School of Physics & Astronomy is hosting. 

“Remember your humanity, and forget the rest”

These were the words of Sir Joseph Rotblat, the nuclear physicist, in his speech while collecting the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1995. Rotblat was the founder of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, an international grouping of scientists who seek to use their expertise and standing to resolve the most serious international security problems. It is believed that research and ideas produced by this group, such as at their biennial international conferences, has directly contributed to the development of the Partial Test Ban Treaty (1963), the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (1968) and the Chemical Weapons Convention (1993). Formed at the start of the Cold War, the Pugwash Conferences encouraged scientists to think beyond East-West divisions and to consider the ethical consequences of their work.

But what about today’s problems? What would Rotblat have to say about the ubiquity of digital technology, the widespread use of drones, and the challenge of climate change?

These are the questions we will consider at a conference organised by Student/Young Pugwash (SYP) UK on 23rd October, in partnership with UoN PhysicsUoN Physics.

One session will consider proposals for a ‘Hippocratic Oath for Scientists’. In a 1999 article for Science (here), Rotblat argued for such an Oath, which would be a public promise to consider the ethical implications of one’s research and career. This call was recently echoed by UCL’s Dr Hannah Fry, who called for a Hippocratic Oath for computer scientists in an era of Cambridge Analytica and ‘killer robots’. What do you think?

Another session will hear from Laura Nolan, a former Google employee who resigned in protest about the company’s involvement in Project Maven, a US DoD initiative to use artificial intelligence technology to analyse drone surveillance footage. Another speaker will be Dr Ian Crossland, a nuclear waste specialist, who will consider the role of ‘intergenerational ethics’ in decision-making within the nuclear industry.

We welcome people of all ages, disciplines and ideologies to the upcoming Ethical Science conference on 23rd October at University Park, Nottingham. Bring your ideas, feel free to argue but always… remember your humanity.

Programme and registration is online here

The One That Got Away…

This is a guest post from Mo Beshr, an undergraduate student at TU Dublin who’ll soon be starting the final year of his Science with Nanotechnology degree. As part of his third year programme, Mo spent six months — from March until August — in our group. [Note to group: we really need to update our website.] Mo’s thoughts on his internship are below. The best of luck with your final year, Mo!


I knew from before even starting university that I wanted to pursue a career in research as it’s been a long-time dream of mine to make a difference in the world — what better way is there than being on the forefront of science discovering something new every day! All students in my course were given the opportunity to carry out their placement in Ireland or abroad through the Erasmus programme. It was always a goal of mine to travel abroad and experience what it would be like to live independently. So once my supervisor at TU Dublin approached me about placement opportunities, I made it clear to him that I was keen to travel abroad.

I was offered countless research opportunities in various universities across Europe such as Germany, Switzerland and France. I’m not much of a languages guy, however, so I thought I’d give living in Nottingham in England a go; sure, they’re our neighbours from across the pond. But if we’re going to be serious, I immediately jumped at the idea of carrying out my placement in the University of Nottingham as I knew a lot about it through watching Sixty Symbols, Numberphile, and Periodic Videos on YouTube, which are channels that include videos on various topics in science explained by staff members of the university. As well as that, I had known of the great work carried out by the Nanoscience Group at the University and I was very excited to see how all that I had studied as a Nanoscience undergrad was applied. Thankfully I was accepted to carry out my work placement in the University of Nottingham working directly with the Nanoscience Group under the supervision of Professor Philip Moriarty between March and August 2019.

My work was focused on the use of ultrahigh vacuum, low temperature ( 5 K and 77 K) scanning tunnelling microscopy (STM) for atomic resolution imaging of metal and semiconductor surfaces, spectroscopy and manipulation of single atoms and molecules. As you can imagine, going from being a goofy student who attended a handful of lectures everyday to being thrown into the big bad world of research was quite daunting. However, with some time and excellent help and advice by the PhD researchers I worked with and my supervisor I got into the swing of things quickly.

Initially, the toughest tasks were understanding how the STM system I would be using operated and how to analyse STM images and spectra. During my initial time in Nottingham I worked with a PhD researcher named Alex Allen on his project, which involved taking scanning tunnelling spectra (STS) of a C60/ Ag(100) sample using the Createc low temperature STM system. When I had first arrived, a sample of C60/Ag(100) had already been inside the Createc STM chamber and only ever removed for annealing and deposition purposes. During one of our weekly meetings, Phil noticed there were porphyrin contaminants on our sample and in order to fix this we had to remove the sample first from the STM and then from the ultrahigh vacuum chamber. While doing this we were, of course, always observing the movements of the STM tip using the live video from the camera. We then replaced the sample.

Once cleaning of the sample had been completed (by sputtering with ions and subsequent annealing), we would bring the sample back into the STM chamber and scan it in order to make sure it was clean and had an atomically flat surface; on the final sputter-anneal cycle, we achieved atomic resolution. Deposition of the desired molecules would then take place. The deposition process involved placing the sample over a crucible of C60. The crucible was then heated up with a high current which in turn sublimes the buckminsterfullerene molecules, thus allowing for the molecules to impinge on the surface of the sample. Once deposition was complete, we collected liquid nitrogen — following my health and safety induction — and then pumped it through the manipulator arm. This was done in order to cool the sample and control just how the fullerene molecules crystallised on the surface.

Finally, the sample was returned to the STM and scanning commenced once again. The  cryostat surrounding the STM was regularly filled with liquid nitrogen, which keeps the sample cooled throughout the scans…


In quite a few cases the scans were quite blurry or appeared smeared due to the STM tip being in a bad state. Sometimes the tip wasn’t atomically sharp and/or add more than one molecule on its apex, leading to multiple tunnelling current centres and thus “blurring” the image. In that case, a method known technically as, err, “crashing” was implemented — a clean area was found, and the tip was pushed into the surface to modify its apex. Once a tip had been “sharpened” and clear images were produced, we could carry out scanning tunnelling spectroscopy (STS) of the surface at any specific point. The tip would be positioned above a molecule. The bias was then varied, and the tunnelling current was recorded, giving a plot of the current-voltage characteristic for a single molecule. Differentiating the I(V) spectrum gives us information on the density of states of the molecules.

As well as gaining valuable experience in operating STM systems, I also obtained training in so-called “soft” skills. Literature review topics were assigned to me prior to carrying out any experimental work so I would have a better understanding of the topic of investigation. This involved me writing a report summarising the literature on that topic. The reviews were an excellent opportunity for me to improve my academic writing skills; with every review I could see improvement, and this prepared me very well for my end-of-placement report. After each literature review, I presented what I had found during group meetings, which was very intimidating as I had never given a presentation before! However, I improved with every presentation and the practice gave me great confidence when I returned to Ireland to present my work placement experience to my peers and lecturers.

Completing my work placement with the Nanoscience Group at Nottingham has let me  apply what I have learned in my three years as an undergraduate student and really opened my eyes to a future in research and academia. I now understand what it takes to be a researcher and I believe that I am now capable of pursuing my dream of becoming a researcher and hopefully to make a positive impact in the world of science. I hope this blog inspires other students like me to consider research as a future career path, as there is truly so much still out there to learn and find out. One tends to learn something new every day, and you realise that you are indeed on the frontline of science.