20,000 Leagues under the THE

This monstrous tome arrived yesterday morning…


I subscribe to the Times Higher Education and generally look forward to the analogue version of the magazine arriving each week. Yesterday, however, it landed with a fulsome house-rattling thud as it hit the floor, prompting Daisy, the eight year old miniature dachshund whose duty it is to ward off all visitors (friend, foe, or pizza), to attempt to shred both the magazine and the 170 page glossy World University Ranking ‘supplement’ pictured above that accompanied it.

I should have smeared the latter with a generous helping of Cesar dog food [1] and have her at it.

Yes, it’s yet another rant about league tables, I’m afraid. I’ve never been one to hold back on the piss and vinegar when it comes to bemoaning the pseudostatistics underpinning education league tables (be they primary school OFSTED placements or the leaderboards for august higher education institutions). I’m lucky to be in very good company. Peter Coles’ annual slamming of the THE rankings is always worth reading. (He’s on especially good form for the 2019 season.) And our very own Head of School, Mike Merrifield, has described in no uncertain terms just why university league tables are bad for you.

But this time round, and notwithstanding that WB Yeats quote I love so much [2], there’s going to be a slightly more upbeat message from yours truly. We need to give students rather more credit when it comes to seeing through the league table guff. They’re a damn sight more savvy than some imagine. Before I describe just why I have this degree of faith in the critical thinking capabilities of the next generation of undergrads, let’s take a look at a few representative (or not, as the case may be) league tables.

I’ve got one more year to go (of a five year ‘gig’) as undergraduate admissions tutor for the School of Physics & Astronomy at Nottingham. Throughout that time, I have enjoyed the healthy catharsis of regularly lambasting league tables during not only my University open day talks (in June and September) but for every week of our UCAS visit/interview days (which kick off again in mid-November).

I routinely point to tables like this, taken from the annual Graduate Market report [3]:


Tsk. Nottingham languishing at #8. Back in 2014-2015 we were at # 2:


Clearly there’s been a drop in quality to have slipped six places, right?

No. There’s nothing “clear” about that supposition at all. Universities and university departments are not football teams: it’s ludicrous to judge any institution (or department therein) on the basis of a single number.

Not convinced? Just sour grapes because Nottingham has ‘slipped’?

Well, take a slightly closer look at Table 5.8 directly above. Let’s leave the Nottingham “also-ran”s to one side, and focus on the top of the pops, Manchester. They’re an impressive #1 when it comes to employer perception…yet #28 in the Good University Guide. So which number do you prefer? Which has more credibility? Which is more robust?

Still have residual doubts? OK, let’s instead focus in on individual schools/departments rather than consider entire universities. (And don’t get me started on the university-wide Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF)’s gold, silver, and bronze medals…) Here’s where Nottingham stands in The Times’ Physics and Astronomy league table:


Yay! Go Nottingham! In at #5 with a bullet. Up a whopping thirteen places compared to last year. (Incidentally, our undergraduate applications were also up by over 20%. This correlation between league table placement and application numbers may not be entirely coincidental…)

Wow. We must really have worked hard in the intervening year. Or perhaps we brought in “star world-class players” on the academic transfer market to “up our game”?


So what was radically different about our teaching and/or research compared to the previous year that led to this climb into the Top Ten?

Nothing. Zilch. Nada.

Feck all.

Indulge me with one last example.  Here’s the most recent (2014) Research Excellence Framework ranking for physics…


Nottingham is the only school/department to remain in the Top 5 over two rounds of this national research assessment exercise. (Last time round (in 2008) we were joint second with Bath and Cambridge). Again, Yay Nottingham!, right? Or does it perhaps speak rather more to a certain volatility in the league table placements because any peer review process like the REF is very far from being entirely objective?

Both Peter Coles and Mike Merrifield (among many others) have pointed out key reasons underpinning league table volatility. I’m not about to rehearse those arguments here. Instead, I’ll highlight a couple of rather encouraging Reddit threads I’ve read recently — and that’s not something I tend to write too often — related, at least partially, to Nottingham’s open days. The first of these Mike has very helpfully highlighted via Twitter:


There is indeed a lot to be said for brutal honesty and I am delighted that the pseudostats of league table placements are being questioned by open day audiences.

The responses to this rather snobbishly overwrought comment elsewhere on Reddit also made my heart sing:


You can read the responses at the thread itself but I especially liked this, from ‘Matthew3_14’:


I’d quibble with the “outside of the top 5ish” proviso (as you might expect), but otherwise “Matthew3_14” echoes exactly what I’ll be telling visiting applicants for our courses in the coming months…

If you like Nottingham, the rankings are irrelevant.

If you don’t like Nottingham, the rankings are still irrelevant.

Go to the place where you feel best.

[1] …for small, yappy-type dogs.

[2] “Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy that sustained him through temporary periods of joy.”

[3] Yes, it’s irritating that we now unblinkingly refer to students as a market. That’s a whole other blog post or five.


Today’s “Wonko The Sane” moment

“It seemed to me,’ said Wonko the Sane, ‘that any civilization that had so far lost its head as to need to include a set of detailed instructions for use in a package of toothpicks, was no longer a civilization in which I could live and stay sane.”

Douglas Adams,So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish

Over the years I’ve thought I’ve reached my Wonko The Sane moment on many occasions. (If you’re not a Douglas Adams fan you should stop reading my witterings right now and dive into Mr. Adams back-catalogue. I’ll wait until you get back.)

I was wrong.

So very wrong.

We live in a civilisation where the video below, discovered by my nine-year old son (because the infernal, evil-incarnate YouTube algorithm recommended it to him after he’d watched a Minecraft tutorial), has accrued over 10 million views.

A video about going into all of the Walmart stores in North Carolina and buying a single Snickers bar from each.

Let me repeat that.

A video about going into all of the Walmart stores in North Carolina and buying a single Snickers bar from each…

…has attracted 10 million views.

A video whose mundanity, tedium, and pure, unmitigated stupidity are each off the scale.

A video that consists of nothing more than shots of Walmarts, checkout counters, and Snickers bars. Over and over. Until your eyes bleed and your IQ drops 100 points.

The next time anyone attempts to read anything into a YouTube video having million views, mention that video to them.

But do not click. Do. Not. Click. Help save us from ourselves.

I need some catharsis. Over to you, Mr. Keenan…

And some say the end is near.
Some say we’ll see Armageddon soon.
Certainly hope we will
I sure could use a vacation from this stupid shit, silly shit, stupid shit.


The war on (scientific) terror…

I’ve been otherwise occupied of late so the blog has had to take a back seat. I’m therefore coming to this particular story rather late in the day. Nonetheless, it’s on an exceptionally important theme that is at the core of how scientific publishing, scientific critique, and, therefore, science itself should evolve. That type of question doesn’t have a sell-by date so I hope my tardiness can be excused.

The story involves a colleague and friend who has courageously put his head above the parapet (on a number of occasions over the years) to highlight just where peer review goes wrong. And time and again he’s gotten viciously castigated by (some) senior scientists for doing nothing more than critiquing published data in as open and transparent a fashion as possible. In other words, he’s been pilloried (by pillars of the scientific community) for daring to suggest that we do science the way it should be done.

This time, he’s been called a…wait for it…scientific terrorist. And by none other than the most cited chemist in the world over the last decade (well, from 2000 – 2010): Chad A Mirkin. According to his Wiki page, Mirkin “was the first chemist to be elected into all three branches of the National Academies. He has published over 700 manuscripts (Google Scholar H-index = 163) and has over 1100 patents and patent applications (over 300 issued, over 80% licensed as of April 1, 2018). These discoveries and innovations have led to over 2000 commercial products that are being used worldwide.”

With that pedigree, this guy must really have done something truly appalling for Mirkin to call him a scientific terrorist (oh, and a zealot, and a narcissist), right? Well, let’s see…

raphaportrait2The colleague in question is Raphael Levy. Raphael (pictured to the right) is a Senior Lecturer — or Associate Professor to use the term increasingly preferred by UK universities and traditionally used by our academic cousins across the pond — in Biochemistry at the University of Liverpool. He has a deep and laudable commitment to open science and the evolution of the peer review system towards a more transparent and accountable ethos.

Along with Julian Stirling, who was a PhD student here at Nottingham at the time, and a number of other colleagues, I collaborated closely with Raphael and his team (from about 2012 – 2014) in critiquing and contesting a body of work that claimed that stripes (with ostensibly fascinating physicochemical and biological properties) formed on the surface of suitably functionalised nanoparticles. I’m not going to revisit the “stripy” nanoparticle debate here. If you’re interested, see Refs [1-5] below. Raphael’s blog , which I thoroughly recommend, also has detailed bibliographies for the stripy nanoparticle controversy.

More recently, Raphael and his co-workers at Liverpool have found significant and worrying deficiencies in claims regarding the efficacy of what are known as SmartFlares. (Let me translate that academically-nuanced wording: Apparently, they don’t work.) Chad Mirkin played a major role in the development of SmartFlares, which are claimed to detect RNA in living cells and were sold by SigmaMilliPore from 2013 until recently, when they were taken off the market.

The SmartFlare concept is relatively straight-forward to understand (even for this particular squalid state physicist, who tends to get overwhelmed by molecules much larger than CO): each ‘flare’  probe comprises a gold nanoparticle attached to an oligonucleotide (that encodes a target sequence) and a fluorophore, which does not emit fluorescence as long as it’s near to the gold particle. When the probe meets the target RNA, however, this displaces the fluorophore (thus reducing the coupling to, and quenching by, the gold nanoparticle) and causes it to glow (or ‘flare’). Or so it’s claimed.

As described in a recent article in The Scientist, however, there is compelling evidence from a growing number of sources, including, in particular, Raphael’s own group, that SmartFlares simply aren’t up to the job. Raphael’s argument, for which he has strong supporting data (from electron-, fluorescence- and photothermal microscopy), is that the probes are trapped in endocytic compartments and get nowhere near the RNA they’re meant to target.

Mirkin, as one might expect, vigorously claims otherwise. That’s, of course, entirely his prerogative. What’s most definitely not his prerogative, however, is to launch hyperbolic personal attacks at a critic of his work. As Raphael describes over at his blog, he asked the following question at the end of a talk Mirkin gave at the American Chemical Society meeting in Boston a month ago:

In science, we need to share the bad news as well as the good news. In your introduction you mentioned four clinical trials. One of them has reported. It showed no efficacy and Purdue Pharma which was supposed to develop the drug decided not to pursue further. You also said that 1600 forms of NanoFlares were commercially available. This is not true anymore as the distributor has pulled the product because it does not work. Finally, I have a question: what is the percentage of nanoparticles that escape the endosome?

According to Raphael’s description (which is supported by others at the conference — see below), Mirkin’s response was ad hominem in the extreme:

[Mirkin said that]…no one is reading my blog (who cares),  no one agrees with me; he called me a “scientific zealot” and a “scientific terrorist”.

Raphael and I have been in a similar situation before with regard to scientific critique not exactly being handled with good grace. We and our colleagues have faced accusations of being cyber-bullies — and, worse, fake blogs and identity theft were used –to attempt to discredit our (purely scientific) criticism.

Science is in a very bad place indeed if detailed criticism of a scientist’s work is dismissed aggressively as scientific terrorism/zealotry. We are, of course, all emotional beings to a greater or lesser extent. Therefore, and despite protestations to the contrary from those who have an exceptionally naive view of The Scientific Method, science is not some wholly objective monolith that arrives at The Truth by somehow bypassing all the messy business of being human. As Neuroskeptic described so well in a blog post about the stripy nanoparticle furore, often professional criticism is taken very personally by scientists (whose self-image and self-confidence can be intimately connected to the success of the science we do). Criticism of our work can therefore often feel like criticism of us.

But as scientists we have to recognise, and then always strive to rise above, those very human responses; to take on board, rather than aggressively dismiss out of hand, valid criticisms of our work. This is not at all easy, as PhD Comics among others has pointed out:

One would hope, however, that a scientist of Mirkin’s calibre would set an example, especially at a conference with the high profile of the annual ACS meeting. As a scientist who witnessed the exchange between Raphael and Mirkin put it,

I witnessed an interaction between two scientists. One asks his questions gracefully and one responding in a manner unbecoming of a Linus Pauling Medalist. It took courage to stand in front of a packed room of scientists and peers to ask those questions that deserved an answer in a non-aggressive manner. It took even more courage to not become reactive when the respondent is aggressive and belittling. I certainly commended Raphael Levy for how he handled the aggressive response from Chad Mirkin.

Or, as James Wilking put it somewhat more pithily:

An apology from Mirkin doesn’t seem to be forthcoming. This is a shame, to put it mildly. What I found rather more disturbing than Mirkin’s overwrought accusation of scientific terrorism, however, was the reaction of an anonymous scientist in that article in The Scientist:

“I think what everyone has to understand is that unhealthy discussion leads to unsuccessful funding applications, with referees pointing out that there is a controversy in the matter. Referee statements like these . . . in a highly competitive environment for funding, simply drain the funding away of this topic,” he writes in an email to The Scientist. He believes a recent grant application of his related to the topic was rejected for this reason, he adds.

This is a shockingly disturbing mindset. Here we have a scientist bemoaning that (s)he did not get public funding because of what is described as “unhealthy” public discussion and controversy about an area of science. Better that we all keep schtum about any possible problems and milk the public purse for as much grant funding as possible, right?

That attitude stinks to high heaven. If it takes some scientific terrorism to shoot it down in flames then sign me up.

[1] Stripy Nanoparticle Controversy Blows Up

[2] Peer Review In Public: Rise Of The Cyber-Bullies? 

[3] Looking At Nothing, Seeing A Lot

[4] Critical Assessment of the Evidence for Striped Nanoparticles, Julian Stirling et al, PLOS ONE 9 e108482 (2014)

[5] How can we trust scientific publishers with our work if they won’t play fair?




A Patter of Podcasts*

* Following extensive research — the best part of three whole minutes on Google — there shockingly appears not to be a collective noun for podcasts. Henceforth, I’m using “patter”. Given at least one OED definition of the word, I think it fits.

I’ve been very fortunate — if I were a religious man, I’d say “blessed” — to have had the support of not only the fantastic marketing team at Ben Bella (including, in particular, Lindsay Marshall) but a number of colleagues and friends when it comes to “plugging” that book I’ve recently written.

I don’t want to turn Symptoms… into a series of adverts for ‘Uncertainty to 11′ — and I won’t. Promise. I’ve got a stack of non-book-related posts coming up if I can ever find time — but I’ve done a series of podcasts and interviews recently that I’ve enjoyed so much I wanted to say a public thank you to all those involved (including Lindsay for setting up and coordinating the majority.) I’ve already blogged about The Aussie Pink Floyd pinkcast and The Death Hangout, and there are a few other podcasts to be uploaded/broadcast in future that I’ll blog about (briefly) in due course, but for now…

The Unmade Podcast

Unmade…” is the brainchild of Brady Haran, with whom I’ve worked just a little over the last decade or so, and Tim Hein. The premise is that they chat about ideas for podcasts that might get made, but probably never will. Occasionally, they invite a guest or two on to join in the conversation and come up with their own ideas for podcast themes. Not only did Brady and Tim let me do that — although, as I noted in the podcast, I can’t claim credit for all of the suggestions I made — but they very kindly let me waffle on at length about that bloody book…


Although the Ikonokast podcast with Greg Laden and his co-host Mike Haubrich started off on that Spinal Tap-inspired theme, we diverged from there quite quickly and chatted about a much broader variety of academic (and non-academic) concerns than just the metal-quantum interface…

Coincidentally, that piece of metal that opens up the Ikonokast conversation (and closes the Unmade podcast) is something called The Root Of All Things that I recorded a while ago as background music for a video. I’m hoping to find time to expand this short piece, with the help of a few musician (and scientist-cum-musician) friends, to a full-blown nano-themed sci-fi metal track over the course of the next year or so. (After all, there’s EPSRC funding to do so.) For now, however, that piece has found its place as backing music for some of Pete McPartlan’s wonderfully quirky animations and art…

The Quantum Podcast

height_90_width_90_15817639_1066803776798865_1271 The Uncertainty Principle and Metal

Maria, the host, is a second year undergraduate physics student who explains a variety of topics covered in her degree via her podcast. We had a fun time discussing everything from Devin Townsend to string theory and the state-of-the-art in theoretical physics. The latter is a theme I’m going to return to very soon here at Symptoms… (and elsewhere) in the context of Sabine Hossenfelder‘s impassioned, sharp, and brilliant critique of the state of 21st century physics, “Lost In Math“. If you have any interest at all in physics, you owe it to yourself to go get Hossenfelder’s book.


I spent most of this podcast trying to stop laughing. Byrne and Wade, your genial hosts, are both very funny guys. Unfortunately, when tasked, I failed spectacularly to come up with a musician joke on the spot. Usually I fall back on one of the drummer classics — “How can you tell a drummer’s at the door? The knocking speeds up” — but it was clearly too early in the morning and/or insufficient caffeine had been imbibed.

A big thank-you to Brady, Tim, Greg, Mike, Maria, Byrne, and Wade for the invitation to join them for a natter.

100% Genuine Universe Splitter

For the one-time, knock-down price of $1.99, you too can have your own Universe Splitter™. On your iPhone. In one universe or another…


Be mindful of the small-print at that website, though:  “*According to prevailing quantum theory. Universes cannot contact each other. Not responsible for user’s actions.”

[Hat-tip to Adam Sweetman for alerting me to this important new technological breakthrough. Thanks, Adam. Now I need never dither again…]

A physicist eulogises…

If you’re gonna die, die with your boots on
If you’re gonna try, well, stick around
Gonna cry, just move along
If you’re gonna die, you’re gonna die

from Iron Maiden’s Die With Your Boots On. Track 4 (Side 1) of Piece of Mind (EMI, 1983). Songwriters: Smith, Harris, Dickinson

On Friday I had the great pleasure of chatting with the dynamic duo of Olivier Larvor and Keith Clarke for their Death Hangout podcast. Notwithstanding the podcast moniker, it was a fun, upbeat, and rather uplifting conversation. (I kid you not. Cross my heart and hope to die..)  Here are Olivier (L) and Keith (R), with their friend, the not-so-Grim Reaper (who disappointingly didn’t put in an appearance on Friday).


Find out more about their intriguing podcast and the associated upcoming book here.

Olivier, Keith and I chatted about the physics of death (with some departures here and there to muse over such themes as rules for life (apparently there’s about a dozen of them), quantum woo, and the broader connotations of the second law of thermodynamics). It’ll take a while for the podcast to be uploaded as Olivier and Keith will have to summon their editing and production demons. In the meantime I wanted to post the eulogy at the foot of this post, which I stumbled across while I was doing some homework for the podcast. As a humanist and a physicist I find it incredibly moving.

I was also invited to a second “Death Hangout” podcast recorded on Friday. The guest this time was Jon Wiederhorn (pictured below), a highly respected figure in the heavy metal community and the author of a number of hugely entertaining books about the genre and a number of its larger-than-life musicians: Louder than Hell, I’m The Man (the biography of Anthrax’s Scott Ian), and Ministry: The Lost Gospels According To Al Jourgensen.

Embed from Getty Images

Death, of course, is at the very core of so much metal music. (The “die, die, die” refrain in Metallica’s “Creeping Death” immediately creeps to mind but there are so very many examples. A drinking game based on mentions of death in metal songs would have a fairly short half-life due to incipient alcohol poisoning…) When the episode featuring Jon goes live, I’ll link to it here at “Symptoms…”. Jon gave a wonderfully engaging, and indeed some might say life-affirming, overview of the catharsis and excitement that metal can generate, gory and/or morbid lyrics notwithstanding

Anyway, I’ll fade to black for now with that beautiful eulogy from a physicist I mentioned. It’s from an NPR broadcast back in 2005 given by the Chicago-based writer and performer Aaron Freeman

You want a physicist to speak at your funeral. You want the physicist to talk to your grieving family about the conservation of energy, so they will understand that your energy has not died. You want the physicist to remind your sobbing mother about the first law of thermodynamics; that no energy gets created in the universe, and none is destroyed. You want your mother to know that all your energy, every vibration, every Btu of heat, every wave of every particle that was her beloved child remains with her in this world. You want the physicist to tell your weeping father that amid energies of the cosmos, you gave as good as you got.

And at one point you’d hope that the physicist would step down from the pulpit and walk to your brokenhearted spouse there in the pew and tell him that all the photons that ever bounced off your face, all the particles whose paths were interrupted by your smile, by the touch of your hair, hundreds of trillions of particles, have raced off like children, their ways forever changed by you. And as your widow rocks in the arms of a loving family, may the physicist let her know that all the photons that bounced from you were gathered in the particle detectors that are her eyes, that those photons created within her constellations of electromagnetically charged neurons whose energy will go on forever.

And the physicist will remind the congregation of how much of all our energy is given off as heat. There may be a few fanning themselves with their programs as he says it. And he will tell them that the warmth that flowed through you in life is still here, still part of all that we are, even as we who mourn continue the heat of our own lives.

And you’ll want the physicist to explain to those who loved you that they need not have faith; indeed, they should not have faith. Let them know that they can measure, that scientists have measured precisely the conservation of energy and found it accurate, verifiable and consistent across space and time. You can hope your family will examine the evidence and satisfy themselves that the science is sound and that they’ll be comforted to know your energy’s still around. According to the law of the conservation of energy, not a bit of you is gone; you’re just less orderly. Amen.

Breaking Through the Barriers

A colleague alerted me to this gloriously barbed Twitter exchange earlier today:


Jess Wade‘s razor-sharp riposte to Brian Cox was prompted by just how Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell has chosen to spend the £2.3M [1] associated with the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics she was awarded today. Here’s the citation for the Prize:

The Selection Committee of the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics today announced a Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics recognizing the British astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell for her discovery of pulsars – a detection first announced in February 1968 – and her inspiring scientific leadership over the last five decades.

In a remarkable act of generosity, Bell Burnell has donated the entire prize money to the Institute of Physics to fund PhD studentships for, as described in a BBC news article, “women, under-represented ethnic minority and refugee students to become physics researchers.” 

Bell Burnell is quoted in The Guardian article to which Brian refers as follows: “A lot of the pulsar story happened because I was a minority person and a PhD student… increasing the diversity in physics could lead to all sorts of good things.”

As an out-and-proud ‘social justice warrior’, [2] I of course agree entirely.

That rumbling you can hear in the distance, however, is the sound of 10,000 spittle-flecked, basement-bound keyboards being hammered in rage at the slightest suggestion that diversity in physics (or any other STEM subject) could ever be a good thing. Once again I find myself in full agreement with my erstwhile University of Nottingham colleague, Peter Coles:

[1] A nice crisp, round $3M for those on the other side of the pond.

[2] Thanks, Lori, for bringing those wonderful t-shirts to my attention!