So long, and thanks for all the fish

Stewart Lee was on fine form in yesterday’s Observer on a burning, but delicious, political issue of our day: are milkshakes the new politics of resistance?

“During his appearances on the campaign trail, Ukip’s star candidate, the internet’s Carl Benjamin, has been assailed with a total of four milkshakes and a single fish. This is a paltry selection of foods on paper, but one which Our Lord Jesus could have used to feed 5,000 people. Or pelt roughly 3,570 Brexiteers.”

Mr. Benjamin‘s milkshake misadventures also featured on Friday’s Have I Got News For You…

As Jess Phillips, MP for Birmingham Yardley, puts it in that clip…

“No, I don’t think you should throw things at politicians, I don’t think you should attack them. I think you should win by being better than them, which is what I am currently doing to Carl Benjamin.”

Jess, current majority of 37.2%, is very definitely winning. The extent of Carl’s political humiliation — which he, of course, will now attempt to pathetically and transparently laugh off as “trolling the establishment” (or some such similar nonsense) [1] — became clear late last night:

UKIP polled just 3.2 per cent of ballots cast in Benjamin’s constituency — a 29 per cent drop from their previous election. Even better, the combined toxicity of Benjamin and Tommy Robinson Stephen Christopher Yaxley-Lennon, and, of course, the wholly predictable and dispiriting success of Farage’s Brexit party, meant that UKIP lost every single seat. (Yaxley-Lennon had to sneak out of the election count early he was so embarrassed.)

Let’s just hope that last night’s very poor Labour performance will finally encourage Jeremy Corbyn to bow to pressure to support a second referendum. I’m not holding my breath, however. (I joined the Labour Party because of Jeremy Corbyn. And I left the Labour Party because of Jeremy Corbyn.)

If you, in turn, were waiting with baited breath for me to close this post with a good fish pun, I’m afraid that, just like Carl’s political career, I floundered…

[1] Carl Benjamin is 39 years old.

The Silent Poetry of Paint Drying

The painting has a life of its own. I just let it come through.

Jackson Pollock (1912 – 1956)

Over the last six weeks or so, I’ve had the immense pleasure of collaborating with local artist Lynda Jackson on a project for Creative Reactions — the arts-science offshoot of Pint of Science   I don’t quite know why I didn’t sign up for Creative Reactions long before now but after reading Mark Fromhold‘s wonderful blog post about last year’s event, I jumped at the chance to get involved with CR2019. The collaboration with Lynda culminated in us being interviewed together for yesterday’s Creative Reactions closing night, which was a heck of a lot of fun. The event, compered by PhD student researcher Paul Brett (Microbiology, University of Nottingham), was expertly live-tweeted by another UoN researcher (this time from the School of Chemistry), Lizzie Killalea

I’ve been fascinated by the physics (and metaphysics) of foam for a very long time, and was delighted that the collaboration with Lynda serendipitously ended up being focused on foam-like painting and patterns. When we met for the first time, Lynda told me that she had a burgeoning interest in what’s known as acrylic pouring, as described in this video…

…and here’s a great example of one of Lynda’s paintings, produced using a somewhat similar technique to that described in the video:


I love that painting, not only for its aesthetic value, but for its direct, and scientifically beautiful, connection to the foam patterns — or, to give them their slightly more technical name, cellular networks — that are prevalent right across nature, from the sub-microscopic to the (quite literally) astronomically large (via, as I discuss in the Sixty Symbols video below, the Giant’s Causeway and some stonkingly stoned spiders)…

Our research group spent a great deal of time (nearly a decade — see this paper for a review of some of that work) analysing the cellular networks that form when a droplet of a suspension of nanoparticles in a solvent is placed on a surface and subsequently left to its own devices (or alternatively spin-dried). Here’s a particularly striking example of the foams-within-foams-within-foams motif that is formed via the drying of a nanoparticle-laden droplet of toluene on silicon…


What you see in that atomic force microscope image above — which is approximately 0.02 of a millimetre, i.e. 20 micrometres, across — are not the individual 2 nanometre nanoparticles themselves, but the much larger (micron-scale) pattern that is formed during the drying of the droplet; the evaporation and dewetting of the solvent corrals the particles together into the patterns you see. It’s somewhat like what happens in the formation of a coffee stain: the particles are carried on the tide of the solvent (water for the coffee example; toluene in the case of the nanoparticles).

Lynda’s painting above is about 50 cm wide. That means that the scale of the foam created by acrylic pouring is ~ 25,000 times bigger than that of the nanoparticle pattern. Physicists get very excited when they see the same class of pattern cropping up in very different systems and/or on very different length scales — it often means that there’s an overarching mathematical framework; a very similar form of differential equation, for example, may well be underpinning the observations. And, indeed, there are similar physical processes at play in both the acrylic pouring and the nanoparticle systems: mixed phases separate under the influence of solvent flow. Here’s another striking example from Lynda’s work:


Phase separation and phase transitions are not only an exceptionally rich source of fascinating physics (and, indeed, chemistry and biology) but they almost invariably give rise to sets of intriguing and intricate patterns that have captivated both scientists and artists for centuries. In the not-too-distant future I’ll blog about Alan Turing’s remarkable insights into the pattern-forming processes that produce the spots, spirals, and stripes of animal hides (like those shown in the tweet below); his reaction-diffusion model is an exceptionally elegant example of truly original scientific thinking. I always hesitate to use the word “genius” — because science is so very much more complicated and collaborative than the tired cliche of the lone scientist “kicking against the odds” — but in Turing’s case the accolade is more than well-deserved.

I nicked the title of this post — well, almost nicked — from a quote generally attributed to Plutarch: “Painting is silent poetry, and poetry is painting that speaks.” It’s very encouraging indeed that Creative Reactions followed hot on the heels of the Science Rhymes event organised by my UoN colleague Gerardo Adesso a couple of weeks ago (see Brigitte Nerlich‘s great review for the Making Science Public blog). Could we at last be breaking down the barriers between those two cultures that CP Snow famously identified so many years ago?

At the very least, I get the feeling that there’s a great deal more going on than just a superficial painting over the cracks…

Are the Nanobots Nigh?

The annual Pint Of Science festival, about which I’ve blogged previously and enthusiastically, is taking place this year from May 20 – 22 not only across the UK but in 24 countries worldwide. This, if I remember correctly, is the fourth consecutive year that I’ve done a Pint of Science talk, and I am looking forward immensely to speaking in the Scratching The Surface of Material Science session tonight in Parliament Bar in town, alongside my University of Nottingham colleagues Morgan Alexander and Nesma Aboulkhair. (Encouragingly, all of the Pint of Science events in Nottingham have sold out!)

The title of the talk I’ll give is “Artifical Intelligence at the Nanoscale (or Is The Nanopocalypse Nigh?“, and I’ll focus on recent developments in machine-learning-enabled scanning probe microscopy, of the type described in this Computerphile video put together by Sean Riley last year…

The PoS talk will, however, also roundly criticise the breathless enthusiasm of certain futurist pundits for a nano-enabled future. (OK, I’ll name names. I mean Ray Kurzweil.  We’re going to become immortal by 2045 according to Ray. Because nano.) I had a long, but ultimately exceptionally productive, exchange all the way back in 2004 about the considerable stumbling blocks that stand in the way of the molecular manufacturing nanotech that is a key enabling component of Kurzweil’s “vision”. At the time I didn’t have a blog but Richard Jones very kindly posted the exchange at his Soft Machines blog, and I was rather pleased to find that the debate is still available there.

Soft Machines is an exceptionally good read on everything from nanoscience to R&D policy to general economics and politics. Richard has also written an incisive and compelling critique of Kurzweil and others’ stance on transhumanism. You should give both the blog and the book, “Against Transhumanism: The Delusion of Technological Transcendence“, a read at the earliest opportunity. You won’t regret it.



Concrete Reasons for the Abstract

I’ve just finished my last set of undergraduate lab report marking for this year and breathed a huge sigh of relief. Overall, however, the quality of the students’ reports has improved considerably over the year, with some producing work of a very high standard. (I get a little frustrated at times with the frustrating Daily Mail-esque whining about “students these days” that infects certain academics of a certain vintage.) Nonetheless, there remain some perennial issues with report writing…

My colleague James O’Shea sent the following missive/ cri de coeur to all of our 1st year undergrad lab class yesterday. I’m posting it here — with James’ permission, of course — because I thought it was a wonderful rationale for the importance of the abstract. (And I feel James’ pain.) Over to you, James.


You have written your last formal report for the first year but you will write many more in the coming years and possibly throughout your career. It seems that the purpose of abstracts and figure captions has not quite sunk in yet. This will come as you read more scientific papers (please read more scientific papers). What you want is to give a complete picture of why the experiment was needed, what the hypothesis was, how it was explored, what the result was, and what the significance of that result is. You should read your abstract back as if it is the only thing people will read. In most cases, it really is the only thing they will read. If the abstract does not provide all these things, the likely outcome is that they won’t bother reading the rest – your boss included – and all the work you put in doing the research will be for nothing.

If a researcher (or your boss) does decide – based on the abstract – that they are interested in your report or paper, they might if they are short of time first just look at the figures. The figure caption is therefore vital. Again, look at the figure and read the caption back to yourself as if this (in conjunction with the abstract) is the only thing they will read. It has to be understandable in isolation from the main body of the text. The figure represents the work that was done. The caption needs to explain that work.

If your boss did read the abstract and decided to look at the figures, they will then most likely skip to the conclusions. From this they will want to get an overview of what new knowledge now exists and what impact it will have on their company or research program. They might then recommend that others in the organisation read your report in detail to find out how robust the research is, or they might give you the go ahead to do more research, or let you lead your own team. But if your abstract did not tell the interesting story in the first place, or your figure captions did not convey what work was done, your report might not even get read in the real world.

Best regards

James O’Shea



Pressure vessels: the epidemic of poor mental health among academics

This post takes its title from a talk that will be given by Liz Morrish here at UoN next week. (5:00 pm on May 21 in The Hemsley.) Here’s the outline:

Liz Morrish will present findings that show how staff employed at Higher Education Institutions/ Universities are accessing counselling and occupational health services at an increasing rate. Between 2009 and 2015, counselling referrals have risen by 77 per cent, while staff referrals to Occupational Health services during the same period have risen by 64 per cent. This attests to an escalating epidemic of poor mental health among the sector’s employees. I will consider some of the factors which weigh on the mental health of academic staff: escalating and excessive workloads; the imposition of metric surveillance; outcomes-based performance management; increasing precarity and insecure contracts. Universities have been characterised as ‘anxiety machines’ which purposefully flout legal requirements to prevent stress in the workplace. Given the urgency of the situation, I will propose some recommendations which if institutions were to follow, might alleviate some of the pressures.

…and here’s Liz’s bio:

Liz Morrish is an independent scholar and activist for resistance to managerial appropriation of the university. She is a visiting fellow at York St John University. She was principal lecturer and subject leader of linguistics at Nottingham Trent University until speaking out and writing about the mental health of academics brought about her resignation in 2016. She is completing a co-authored book on managerial discourse in the neoliberal academy, entitled Academic Irregularities (Routledge forthcoming) and she also writes a blog with the same name: Having exited the academy, Liz now has more time for other activities, and she now spends time as a marathon swim observer.

I met Liz a number of years ago, when she was principal lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. Not so long after we met, NTU disgracefully brought disciplinary proceedings against Liz when she spoke out about the mental health of academics, ultimately causing her to resign. For the full story on NTU’s shocking behaviour — driven, of course, by its metrics-and-league-table-infected management ‘strategy’ — an exceptionally important article written for the Times Higher Education shortly after Liz’s resignation is a must-read. Here’s a taster, but you should read the entire article for deep insights into just how low a university will go in its attempts to protect its reputation and pressure its staff:

In March last year [2016], Times Higher Education republished a blog piece that I wrote on the causes of stress and threats to mental health in academic life. The piece recounted how, on University Mental Health Day, I opened up to students about some of the pressures their lecturers were under. Many readers were kind enough to retweet the link, respond under the line or email me personally to let me know that my article resonated for colleagues around the world. But after it had received 10,000 hits on my own blog and spent four days trending on THE’s website, my previous employer objected to it and I was obliged to ask for it to be taken down. This inaugurated a disciplinary process that I felt curbed my ability to write further on the topic, or to have a frank dialogue with students on mental health in universities.

I feel very fortunate indeed that I am employed by the “other” university in Nottingham. Although I have had, and continue to have, my spats with senior management here, they have not once asked me to constrain or curtail my criticism of university (and University) culture; there’s been not so much as a quiet word in my ear following even rather scathing public critiques. Thank you, UoN, for your commitment to academic freedom.

I’d very much appreciate it if those of you who are Twitter-enabled UoN academics could spread the word about Liz’s talk. (I’ve forgone that particular form of communication.)  I hope to see you there on May 21.


If it seems obvious, it probably isn’t

…And Then There’s Physics’ post on science communication, reblogged below, very much struck a chord with me. This point, in particular, is simply not as widely appreciated as it should be:

“Maybe what we should do more of is make it clear that the process through which we develop scientific knowledge is far more complicated than it may, at first, seem.”

There can too often be a deep-seated faith in the absolute objectivity and certainty of “The Scientific Method”, which possibly stems (at least in part) from our efforts to not only simplify but to “sell” our science to a wide audience. The viewer response to a Sixty Symbols video on the messiness of the scientific process, “Falsifiability and Messy Science”, brought this home to me: The Truth, The Whole Truth, and Nothing But…

(…but I’ve worried for a long time that I’ve been contributing to exactly the problem ATTP describes: Guilty Confessions of a YouTube Physicist)

By the way, if you’re not subscribed to ATTP’s blog, I heartily recommend that you sign up right now.

...and Then There's Physics

There’s an interesting paper that someone (I forget who) highlighted on Twitter. It’a about when science becomes too easy. The basic idea is that there are pitfalls to popularising scientific information.

Compared to experts,

laypeople have not undergone any specialized training in a particular domain. As a result, they do not possess the deep-level background knowledge and relevant experience that a competent evaluation of science-related knowledge claims would require.

However, in the process of communicating, and popularising, science, science communicators tend to provide simplified explanations of scientific topics that can

lead[s] readers to underestimate their dependence on experts and conclude that they are capable of evaluating the veracity, relevance, and sufficiency of the contents.

I think that this is an interesting issue and it partly what motivated my post about public involvement in science.

However, I am slightly uneasy about this general framing. I think everyone is a…

View original post 449 more words

Bursting Ben’s Bubble: Shapiro meets the rabid lefty Andrew Neil

I thoroughly recommend that you take sixteen minutes of your time today to watch just what happens when a leading Conservative pundit is required to leave his YouTube and Fox News safe space and respond to reasonable, rational questions put to him in a far-from-confrontational yet critical tone…

Shapiro, who throws around the “snowflake” epithet with wild abandon and regularly whines about the over-sensitivity of his political opponents, walked out of the interview because he thought that Andrew “Brillo” Neil was too much of a lefty. Yep, this Andrew Neil. That renowned darling of the left. As those wags at Private Eye — who have taken every available opportunity to highlight Mr. Neil over the years —  would put it, shurely shome mistake?

Shapiro’s tantrum was followed by the amusing meltdown of his hypersensitive fans who whined about Neil’s “rudeness” during the interview…

Watch the interview. Make up your own mind as to how Shapiro performed outside the echo chamber of his YouTube subscriber base. But make sure you watch right to the end. Andrew Neil’s closing line is delicious.