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



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

“The drum beats out of time…”

Far back in the mists of time, in those halcyon days when the Brexit referendum was still but a comfortably distant blot on the horizon and Trump’s lie tally was a measly sub-five-figures, I had the immense fun of working with Brady Haran and Sean Riley on this…

As that video describes, we tried an experiment in crowd-sourcing data via YouTube for an analysis of the extent to which fluctuations in timing might be a signature characteristic of a particular drummer (or drumming style). Those Sixty Symbols viewers who very kindly sent us samples of their drumming — all 78 of you [1] — have been waiting a very, very long time for this update. My sincere thanks for contributing and my profuse apologies for the exceptionally long delay in letting you know just what happened to the data you sent us. The good news is that a paper, Rushing or Dragging? An Analysis of the “Universality” of Correlated Fluctuations in Hi-hat Timing and Dynamics (which was uploaded to the arXiv last week), has resulted from the drumming fluctuations project. The abstract reads as follows.

A previous analysis of fluctuations in a virtuoso (Jeff Porcaro) drum performance [Räsänen et al., PLoS ONE 10(6): e0127902 (2015)] demonstrated that the rhythmic signal comprised both long range correlations and short range anti-correlations, with a characteristic timescale distinguishing the two regimes. We have extended Räsänen et al.’s approach to a much larger number of drum samples (N=132, provided by a total of 58 participants) and to a different performance (viz., Rush’s Tom Sawyer). A key focus of our study was to test whether the fluctuation dynamics discovered by Räsänen et al. are “universal” in the following sense: is the crossover from short-range to long-range correlated fluctuations a general phenomenon or is it restricted to particular drum patterns and/or specific drummers? We find no compelling evidence to suggest that the short-range to long-range correlation crossover that is characteristic of Porcaro’s performance is a common feature of temporal fluctuations in drum patterns. Moreover, level of experience and/or playing technique surprisingly do not play a role in influencing a short-range to long-range correlation cross-over. Our study also highlights that a great deal of caution needs to be taken when using the detrended fluctuation analysis technique, particularly with regard to anti-correlated signals.

There’s also some bad news. We’ll get to that. First, a few words on the background to the project.

Inspired by a fascinating paper published by Esa Rasanen (of Tampere University) and colleagues back in 2015, a few months before the Sixty Symbols video was uploaded, we were keen to determine whether the correlations observed by Esa et al. in the fluctuations in an iconic drummer’s performance — the late, great Jeff Porcaro — were a common feature of drumming.

Why do we care — and why should you care — about fluctuations in drumming? Surely we physicists should be doing something much more important with our time, like, um, curing cancer…

OK, maybe not.

More seriously, there are very many good reasons why we should study fluctuations (aka noise) in quite some detail. Often, noise is the bane of an experimental physicist’s life. We spend inordinate amounts of time chasing down and attempting to eliminate sources of noise, be they at a specific frequency (e.g. mains “hum” at 50 Hz or 60 Hz [2]) or, sometimes more frustratingly, when the signal contamination is spread across the frequency spectrum, forming what’s known as white noise. (Noise can be of many colours other than white — just as with a spectrum of light it all depends on which frequencies are present.)

But noise is most definitely not always just a nuisance to be avoided/eliminated at all costs; there can be a wealth of information embedded in the apparent messiness. Pink noise, for example, crops up in many weird and wonderful — and, indeed, many not-so-weird-and-not-so-wonderful — places, from climate change, to fluctuations in our heartbeats, to variations in the stock exchange, to current flow in electronic devices, and, indeed, to mutations occurring during the expansion of a cancerous tumour.  An analysis of the character and colour of noise can provide compelling insights into the physics and maths underpinning the behaviour of everything from molecular self-assembly to the influence and impact of social media.

The Porcaro performance that Esa and colleagues analysed for their paper is the impressive single-handed 16th note groove that drives Michael McDonald’s “I Keep Forgettin’…” I wanted to analyse a similar single-handed 16th note pattern, but in a rock rather than pop context, to ascertain whether Procaro’s pattern of fluctuations in interbeat timing were characteristic only of his virtuoso style or if they were a general feature of drumming. I’m also, coincidentally, a massive Rush fan. An iconic and influential track from the Canadian trio with the right type of drum pattern immediately sprang to mind: Tom Sawyer.

So we asked Sixty Symbols viewers to send in audio samples of their drumming along to Tom Sawyer, which we subsequently attempted to evaluate using a technique called detrended fluctuation analysis. When I say “we”, I mean a number of undergraduate students here at the University of Nottingham (who were aided, but more generally abetted, by myself in the analysis.) I’ve set a 3rd year undergraduate project on fluctuations in drumming for the last three years; the first six authors on the arXiv paper were (or are) all undergraduate students.

Unfortunately, the sound quality (and/or the duration) of many of the samples submitted in response to the Sixty Symbols video was just not sufficient for the task. That’s not a criticism, in any way, of the drummers who submitted audio files; it’s entirely my fault for not being more specific in the video. We worked with what we could, but in the end, the lead authors on the arXiv paper, Oli(ver) Gordon and Dom(inic) Coy, adopted a different and much more productive strategy for their version of the project: they invited a number of drummers (twenty-two in total) to play along with Tom Sawyer using only a hi-hat (so as to ensure that each and every beat could be isolated and tracked) and under exactly the same recording conditions.

You can read all of the details of the data acquisition and analysis in the arXiv paper. It also features the lengthiest acknowledgements section I’ve ever had to write. I think I’ve thanked everyone who provided data in there but if you sent me an MP3 or a .wav file (or some other audio format) and you don’t see your name in there, please let me know by leaving a comment below this post. (Assuming, of course, that you’d like to be acknowledged!)

We submitted the paper to the J. New Music Research last year and received some very helpful referees’ comments. I am waiting to get permission from the editor of the journal to make those (anonymous) comments public. If that permission is given, I’ll post the referees’ reports here.

In hindsight, Tom Sawyer was not the best choice of track to analyse. It’s a difficult groove to get right and even Neil Peart himself has said that it’s the song he finds most challenging to play live. In our analysis, we found very little evidence of the type of characteristic “crossover” in the correlations of the drumming fluctuations that emerged from Esa and colleagues’ study of Porcaro’s drumming. Our results are also at odds with the more recent work by Mathias Sogorski, Theo Geisel, Viola Priesemann (of the Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organization, and the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience, Göttingen, Germany) — a comprehensive and systematic analysis of microtiming variations in jazz and rock recordings spanning a total of over 100 recordings.

The likelihood is that the conditions under which we recorded the tracks — in particular, the rather “unnatural” hi-hat-only performance — may well have washed out the type of correlations observed by others. Nonetheless, this arguably negative result is a useful insight into the extent to which correlated fluctuations are robust (or not) with respect to performance environment and style. It was clear from our results, in line with previous work by Holger Hennig, Theo Geisel and colleagues, that the fluctuations are not so much characteristic of an individual drummer but of a performance; the same drummer could produce different fluctuation distributions and spectra under different performing conditions.

So where do we go from here? What’s the next stage of this research? I’m delighted to say that the Sixty Symbols video was directly responsible for kicking off an exciting collaboration with Esa and colleagues at Tampere that involves a number of students and researchers here at Nottingham. In particular, two final year project students, Ellie Hill and Lucy Edwards, have just returned from a week-long visit to Esa’s group at Tampere University. Their project, which is jointly supervised by my colleague Matt Brookes, Esa, and myself, focuses on going that one step further in the analysis of drumming fluctuations to incorporate brain imaging. Using this wonderful device.

I’m also rather chuffed that another nascent collaboration has stemmed from the Sixty Symbols video (and the subsequent data analysis) — this time from the music side of the so-called “two cultures” divide. The obscenely talented David Domminney Fowler, of Australian Pink Floyd fame, has kindly provided exceptionally high quality mixing desk recordings of “Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2)” from concert performances. (Thanks, Dave. [3]) Given the sensitivity of drumming fluctuations to the precise performance environment, the analysis of the same drummer (in this case, Paul Bonney) over multiple performances could prove very informative. We’re also hoping that Bonney will be able to make it to the Sir Peter Mansfield Imaging Centre here in the not-too-distant future so that Matt and colleagues can image his brain as he drums. (Knock yourself out with drummer jokes at this point. Dave certainly has.) I’m also particularly keen to compare results from my instrument of choice at the moment, Aerodrums, with those from a traditional kit.

And finally, the Sixty Symbols video also prompted George Datseris, professional drummer and PhD student  researcher, also at the Max Planck Institute for Dynamics & Self-Organisation, to get in touch to let us know about his intriguing work with the Giesel group: Does it Swing? Microtiming Deviations and Swing Feeling in Jazz. Esa and George will both be visiting Nottingham later this year and I am very enthusiastic indeed about the prospects for a European network on drum/rhythm research.

What’s remarkable is that all of this collaborative effort stemmed from Sixty Symbols. Public engagement is very often thought of exclusively in terms of scientists doing the research and then presenting the work as a fait accompli. What I’ve always loved about working with Brady on Sixty Symbols, and with Sean on Computerphile, is that they want to make the communication of science a great deal more open and engaging than that; they want to involve viewers (who are often the taxpayers who fund the work) in the trials and tribulations of the day-to-day research process itself. Brady and I have our spats on occasion, but on this point I am in complete and absolute agreement with him. Here he is, hitting the back of the net in describing the benefits of a warts-and-all approach to science communication…

They don’t engage with one paper every year or two, and a press release. I think if people knew what went into that paper and that press release…and they see the ups and the downs… even when it’s boring… And they see the emotion of it, and the humanity of it…people will become more engaged and more interested…

With the drumming project, Sixty Symbols went one step further and brought the viewers in so they were part of the story — they drove the direction of the science. While YouTube has its many failings, Sixty Symbols and channels like it enable connections with the world outside the lab that were simply unimaginable when I started my PhD back in (gulp…) 1990. And in these days of narrow-minded, naive nationalism, we need all the international connections we can get. Marching to the beat of your own drum ain’t all it’s cracked up to be…

Source of cartoon:

[1] 78. “Seven eight”.

[2] 50 Hz or 60 Hz depending on which side of the pond you fall. Any experimental physicist or electrical/electronic engineer who might be reading will also know full well that mains noise is generally not only present at 50 (or 60) Hz — there are all those wonderful harmonics to consider. (And the strongest peak may well not even be at 50 (60) Hz, but at one of those harmonics. And not all harmonics will contribute equally.  Experimental physics is such a joy at times…)

[3] In the interests of full disclosure I should note that Dave is a friend, a fan of Sixty Symbols, Numberphile, etc.., and an occasional contributor to Computerphile. He and I have spent quite a few tea-fuelled hours setting the world to rights



“Science on Saturday” Goes to 11

This weekend I had the honour and privilege of being the first speaker for the 2019 Ronald E Hatcher Science on Saturday series of lectures held at, and organised by, Princeton’s PPL (Plasma Physics Laboratory).  I’ll let PPPL themselves explain what Science On Saturday is all about:

Science on Saturday is a series of lectures given by scientists, engineers, and other professionals involved in cutting-edge research. Held on Saturday mornings throughout winter, the lectures are geared toward high school students. The program draws more than 300 students, teachers, parents, and community members. Topics are selected from a variety of disciplines.

Named after the late Ronald E Hatcher, who ran and hosted the series for many years, Science on Saturday is a fun way to bring physics (and other lesser sciences) to the general public(s) and other scientists alike. I was bowled over by the enthusiasm and engagement of the audience, who braved a bracing Saturday morning to hear about the connections between Sabbath, Stryper, and Schrödinger.  (The free bagels and coffee before the talk were, I’m sure, not entirely incidental in attracting the audience. I certainly can vouch for the quality of the pre-lecture consumables.) The Q&A session at the end ran for over an hour, with many insightful questions from the audience, whose age range seemed to span ~ 9 to 90 years young!

A number of those who were in the audience e-mailed me after the talk to ask for a copy of the slides. I’ve uploaded them to SlideShare (sans videos, regrettably) to make them publicly available here:


Andrew Zwicker has been the energetic and entertaining host for Science on Saturday for, if I recall correctly, more years than he cares to remember. In parallel with his career in physics, Andrew has successfully forayed into politics, as outlined at his Wikipedia page. Before the lecture he told me about an exciting scheme to encourage more early career researchers into politics. I thoroughly understand the reticence of many scientists to get involved with the political sphere — my involvement with the Royal Society MP-Scientist pairing scheme a number of years ago was an eye-opener in terms of the mismatch that can exist between political and scientific mindsets — but we need to bite the bullet and dive in*, especially in an era when hard scientific evidence is so readily dismissed as “fake news”. (Apologies. Make that “FAKE NEWS” and add any number of exclamation marks to taste.)

On the day of my Science on Saturday lecture, a white supremacist march had been mooted to be held in Princeton (not the most likely of venues, it fortunately has to be said, for that type of hatemongering.) In the end, the basement dwellers never turned up — they claimed that it was a hoax. But the counter-protesters attended in their heart-warming hundreds…

I’d like to offer a very big thank you both to Andrew for the invitation to speak at “Science on Saturday” and to DeeDee Ortiz, the Program Manager for Science Education at PPPL, for organising the visit. A similarly massive thank you to Lori for all of her help and organisation, including providing the key musical “props” used during the lecture.

*Excuse the mixed metaphor. I love mixed metaphors. This, taken from Leon Lederman’s “The God Particle” as an example of writing by one of his PhD students, is my very favourite: “This field of physics is so virginal that no human eyeball has ever set foot in it.” (That quote tickles me so much that I use it as part of the introduction to the final year Politics, Perception, and Philosophy of Physics  module here at Nottingham.)

Crossing The Divide: Communicating with the Comms Crew


I’m just back from a fascinating and thought-provoking day at Woburn House Conference Centre in London where I had the pleasure of contributing to Making An Impact: Marketing and Communications in Higher EducationI’ll quote directly from the blurb for the conference:

 Making an impact: Marketing and communications in higher education will bring together communications, marketing, external relations and digital professionals to discuss the particular nature of university marketing and communications, to draw inspiration from outside the sector, and to examine case studies to help you progress and enhance your own marketing and communications strategy.

At the start of the academic year, the conference organisers, Universities UK, invited me to present and run a breakout session on the upsides and dark sides of social media in academia. I was delighted to have been invited, but what I found rather surprising, if not a little disconcerting, when I scanned down the list of hundred or so delegates this morning was that I was apparently the only academic attending.

Now, I realise that, as is clear from the blurb above, the conference was pitched at those in higher education comms, marketing, and external relations. But still. A conference on core aspects of HE that was largely academic-free is symptomatic of the troublesome “us and them” divide that increasingly exists between those “at the chalkface” and our marketing and comms colleagues at the “centre”. Although I’ve been fairly — or unfairly, depending on which side of the divide you fall — scathing of the more corporate aspects of HE branding, I of course fully recognise that we academics need the support and guidance of our colleagues in marketing and comms. But that runs both ways; there has to be mutual recognition of each other’s expertise. I hope that more academics will get involved with this type of conference in future.

Despite initially feeling like a stranger in a strange land, however, I got a great deal out of the conference. Robert Perry‘s opening presentation on “influencer mapping” was fascinating. Perry made a strong case for the much greater online influence of the individual academic over that of the institution, which chimes with our experience with Sixty Symbols (and Brady Haran‘s other channels): the lack of a corporate “sheen” in connecting and engaging with an audience is almost essential.  As a fellow geek, I was also intrigued by the “connectivity mapping” that Perry presented in the self-styled “Geeky Bit” part of his presentation.

Next up was the engaging and informative Sian Griffiths, Education Editor for the Sunday Times, who was interviewed by Michael Thompson of Universities UK. This was a wide-ranging discussion covering everything from the unhelpful defensiveness of a certain breed of  university press officer to whether unconditional offers for university applicants are a good idea. (As an admissions tutor, the latter certainly piqued my interest.)


Closing the morning session, we had Kirsty Walker, Director Media Relations, University College London and Beth Button, Campaigns Manager, Universities UK on the #MadeAtUni campaign. Georgina Munn’s tweet below captures the core rationale for #MadeAtUni. (Georgina is Customer Success Manager at The Access Platform (TAP)).

At this point I had not imbibed caffeine for a good ninety minutes, so rushed to grab a coffee before the palpitations kicked in. (Again.) Then it was up two flights of stairs to the Boardroom for a session on crisis management from Will Marsh, Head of Media at Bristol University, and Tom Sheldon, Senior Press Manager for the Science Media Centre. Universities UK worked Will hard for the conference — not only did he co-present this session but he and I jointly delivered a breakout session after lunch (see below). Will discussed the tragic student suicides that have happened at Bristol University over the last two academic years, describing just how he and his team dealt with the issues with sensitivity and insight. (Unsurprisingly, the Daily Mail did not exactly cover itself in glory in its coverage of the tragedies. Handling intrusive tabloid coverage was a recurring theme of Will’s talk.)

Tom Sheldon similarly made mention of tabloid hyperbole in his presentation…


Despite being very much of the “glass half-empty, fallen on the ground, crushed to bits…and we’ll never get the wine stains out of the carpet” persuasion, I was hugely encouraged by Tom’s slide below:


In case you can’t read the text above, the headline message is that 90% of the UK public (via the MORI Public Attitudes To Science survey in 2014) trusted scientists working for universities to follow the rules and regulations of our profession. That is remarkable (and, from certain perspectives, rather at odds with attitudes to academics across the pond).

Will and Tom’s Q&A had to be curtailed so we all could go to lunch. Will and I made our way back to the Boardroom for our session, “Communications professionals and researchers: Collaborating for success”. I discussed my rather polarised relationship with social media. Working with Brady Haran on Sixty Symbols, Numberphile (and, very, very occasionally, Periodic Videos), and with Sean Riley on Computerphile, has completely changed how I think about not only public engagement but teaching in general. But I’ve also written about the deep downsides of social media engagement both here at Symptoms… and elsewhere.

The key message I wanted to get across to the comms/marketing audience in the room (who kindly listened to me drone on for twenty minutes or so) was that it’s a mistake to think that there’s an adoring public out there waiting for academics to enlighten them about our most recent world-leading, pioneering, game-changing, cutting-edge (add buzzwords ad nauseum…) research. As ever for this type of presentation, I asked how many in the audience had heard of GamerGate (just five hands went up) or Anita Sarkeesian (three hands raised). This is a concern, given that this was an audience of (social) media professionals. My slides are below.

Will’s presentation focussed on just how a university Media and Communications team can collaborate with academics who have been targeted on social media (and beyond) due to research which is perceived as contentious. Remarkably, one especially contentious area of research turns out to be work on chronic fatigue syndrome. Will, depressingly, discussed how Bristol academics have received death threats due to their work in this area. (This article in The Guardian, which Will cited, highlights one example of targeting of a Bristol researcher.)

There is, of course, no silver bullet solution to protecting academics from the adverse consequences of engaging publicly. (The related issue of just where the line is drawn between professional and personal online activity was something that was raised in the Q&A session following our presentations.) Will made this point repeatedly for very good reason throughout his talk. Regardless, however, of just how we respond to each crisis, what is essential is that there are always good lines of communication and a strong professional relationship between the comms/media team and the academic staff.

For all of these reasons (and many more), next time I attend a conference on marketing and communications in HE, I sincerely hope that, as an academic, I’m not in a minority of one.

Update 09/11/2018: I’ve just scanned this week’s Times Higher Education over breakfast and read Charlotte Galpin‘s insightful and timely article on academics engaging via video: “Video must not kill the female stars of public academic debate“. Her article certainly resonated with me — Galpin echoes a number of the points that Will and I raised during our breakout session yesterday:

Live streaming, live tweeting, posting and podcasting of academic events has become a standard part of universities’ dissemination strategies, and I had been asked to participate in this one just months into my first lectureship. Yet, it is not clear that the wider implications of the practice have been considered in any depth.

My university has been supportive, but it also expressed surprise over my Daily Express experience, and reassured me that nothing like that had happened before.

It beggars belief that a university can express surprise at the type of backlash Dr. Galpin received. This lack of appreciation of just how toxic and aggressive it can get “out there” is troubling and needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. For one thing, Galpin’s article should be on the list of required reading for all HE media and comms professionals. Anita Sarkeesian’s TEDx talk should similarly be part of the learning resources for Social Media for Academics 101…