The stem cell trachea scandal

Over the last couple of years I have followed Leonid Schneider‘s dedicated and forensic reporting of the Macchiarini trachea implant scandal (which has taken its toll on Leonid through legal threats and court costs) but had not realised that my colleague and collaborator, Raphael Levy (University of Liverpool) was also embroiled in this tragic case. That was until the following blog post appeared in my e-mail inbox a couple of days ago…

Raphael’s commitment to uncovering scientific misconduct, in this case alongside his colleague Prof Patricia Murray in the Institute of Translational Medicine at Liverpool, continues to inspire. I hope that Shauna Davidson‘s family get the answers they deserve very soon. It is very disappointing, to put it mildly, that, as Raphael describes below, the Medical Research Council (MRC) has been less than entirely open with its responses.

Rapha-z-lab

Yesterday night, BBC Newsnight broadcasted an investigation by journalist Deborah Cohen featuring interviews with my colleague Prof Patricia Murray as well as extremely moving testimony by the mum of Shauna Davidson. Shauna’s mum had been misled on the nature of the intervention on her daughter and even on the cause of her death.

Patricia is a stem cell expert and we’ve hada longterm (and ongoing) collaboration on using imaging to track stem cells for evaluation of their safety and efficacy. When, a few years ago, she started to get interested in the Macchiarini scandal and realised that similar experiments on patients had been done in the UK (and continued to be done), she contacted me knowing my interest in ethical issues and scientific misconduct. I am proud to have supported her sterling work in uncovering this scandal – I am also pleased that legal threats have…

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A Suspension of Hostilities

An eloquent and affecting post from Peter Coles on the centenary of Armistice Day and the poppy.

“The message of the poppy is supposed to be “Lest We Forget”. I’m afraid far too many have already forgotten.”

In the Dark

Among all the images produced during this weekend’s commemorations of the centenary of Armistice Day, this image of Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron struck me as particularly moving.

Part of the reasons is that it reminded me of this photograph, of President Mitterand and Chancellor Kohl, taken in 1984:

Exactly one hundred years after the truce that effectively ended the First World War, these images remind us how much suffering took place before Europe reached a point at which war between France and Germany became unthinkable. That peace now looks increasingly fragile as the forces of nationalism, spurred on by populist demagogues, and funded by greedy disaster capitalists, threaten to tear apart the institutions that have brought Europe together in a spirit of mutual cooperation for so long. All that has been achieved could so easily be lost.

As Fintan O’Toole has written in a long article in this…

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Probes, Patterns, and (nano)Particles

Raphael Levy was kind enough to invite me to write a post for his blog on a recent paper that, unlike some previous work I’ve critiqued there, represents a careful and credible approach to imaging sub-nanoparticle structure. (That close-to-a-decade-old profile photo really needs to be updated, however…)

Rapha-z-lab

philipmoriarty Philip Moriarty

This is a guest post by Philip Moriarty, Professor of Physics at the University of Nottingham (and blogger).

“We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.”

Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980)

My previous posts for Raphael’s blog have focussed on critiquing poor methodology and over-enthusiastic data interpretation when it comes to imaging the surface structure of functionalised nanoparticles. This time round, however, I’m in the much happier position of being able to highlight an example of good practice in resolving (sub-)molecular structure where the authors have carefully and systematically used scanning probe microscopy (SPM), alongside image recognition techniques, to determine the molecular termination of Ag nanoparticles.

For those unfamiliar with SPM, the concept underpinning the operation of the technique is relatively straight-forward. (The experimental implementation rather less so…) Unlike a conventional microscope, there are no lenses, no mirrors, indeed, no optics of any sort [1]. Instead…

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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…

Ikonokast

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.

Sci-gasm

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.

“Conservatism is the new Punk Rock”. Discuss.

I wrote this guest post for Peter Coles’ “In The Dark” blog about a year ago. Now that “Symptoms…” is back online, I’m reblogging it here for completeness.

In the Dark

It’s been a while since I had a guest post on this blog so it’s a pleasure to present this, by Philip Moriarty, to add to your reading for the Bank Holiday Weekend. Phil and I have had a number of exchanges over the years about the possibility of him writing a post for In The Dark and I’m very happy that it’s finally happened!

Take it away, Philip Moriarty…

–o–

If the conversations and feedback I’ve had at recent “social media in academia” meetings are anything to go by, I suspect that the majority of my academic friends and colleagues will be unaware of the source of the quote above. Although ignorance is certainly the more blissful option here, those of us with any semblance of interest in diversity, equality, gender balance, and widening participation issues in higher education need to start paying attention to just why memes…

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Guest Post: In defence of no-platforming

Every now and again in the comments sections under the videos I upload, there’ll be an insightful, perceptive and well-argued response (amidst many other comments which make Private Eye’s “From The Message Boards” look positively sane by comparison). The (non-italicised) comment under the line below was posted by Guido Bos under the “Science in a ‘post-truth’ world” video I uploaded for the Politics, Perception and Philosophy of Physics module a couple of weeks ago. 

No-platforming has been in the news throughout 2016 due, in no small part, to a certain beyond-narcissistic, self-aggrandising, rent-a-gob pundit who’s the current poster boy for the alt-right. I am, of course, talking about the legend-in-his-own-lunchtime that is  Milo Yiannopoulos.  Milo is, in essence, a bargain-basement Katie Hopkins. (Or perhaps that should be that Hopkins is a bargain-basement Milo? It’s a little difficult to tell when they’re both racing to the bottom at such a pace). His raison d’etre is simply to stir up as much controversy as possible in order to market what’s most important to him: Milo.

Yiannopoulos’ US speaking tour has generated torrents of controversy and he’s been barred from speaking at a number of universities. His most recent hate-filled diatribes against transgender people — where, in one case, he petulantly, aggressively, and despicably targetted an individual student —  have been designed, of course, to be as provocative as possible. Many student groups/unions have aimed to no-platform Yiannopoulos on this basis.

I have always had major misgivings about no-platforming. Not only is it troublesome in terms of locking out opposing opinions — of particular concern on university campuses where debate and discussion should be the lifeblood of everything we do — but it also can be immensely counter-productive when it comes to the likes of Yiannopoulos. No-platforming Milo and his ilk feeds directly into the culture of victim-hood and martyrdom that runs through the entire alt-right movement. They will exploit the ban as a draconian, Orwellian, monstrous attack on their freedom of speech.

Guido, however, makes some very important counter-arguments in his guest post below. It’s a thoughtful and thought-provoking piece. (And it’s really not too often I can say that about comments left under YouTube videos.) I’ll address the questions Guido puts to me at the end of the piece below in a future post. For now, I’ll simply note that targeting an individual student in the odious and cowardly way Yiannopoulos did at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee crosses an exceptionally important line.


I often see the concept of no-platforming framed entirely as “people not capable of dealing with ideas that contradict them”. And in a purely academic sense I agree this is bad. If there’s a dispute between two fields in say, a scientific field (STEM or social) one side shouldn’t just go “oh we should never listen to the opposition & ban ’em from our school!”. However in the cases where I’ve read about stories of no-platforming or speakers being protested, frequently the objections to the discussion have little to do with the substance of the debate but rather … side issues.

I want to say the categories I’ve seen in large part are:

[1] Unequal representation of views. A 1-on-1 debate in an academic setting on the earth being round or flat would be absurd for a simple reason: a flat earth is the most fringe, out there non-scientific belief ever. The very idea it’s worth having a big academic discussion on the possibility of the earth being flat would just be such a misuse of funding and resources. Would you agree that some positions are so inherently non-scientific and so fringe that providing them a platform would be ridiculous simply for what they are?

[2] Style over substance debates (in the ballpark of post-truth). A lot of evolutionary biologists advice against debating creationists/ID proponents for a general audience, for a simple reason: A debate where the rules and topic aren’t particularly tight greatly benefit the spread of misinformation/dirty tactics. While an open discussion on ideas is in itself fine, a lot of creation/id related debates end in that particualr side just trying to spread as much misinformation as is humanly possible, in as little time as possible.

I know many people who are uncomfortable with no-platforming (like Richard Dawkins) strongly hold the view [or held, not sure if it changed] that if the format invites for a clear spread of non-academic misinformation, giving particular people a platform will only result in misinformation. There’s a big difference between critically examining a singular selected claim by a creationist/id group and teaching students to critically examine counter arguments in an academic environment. (I’ve had to do that for a test, critically examine an ID pamphlet & point out the fallacies/misrepresentation of evolution) OR giving a platform to a non-academic viewpoint to basically spread their misinformation nearly unchallenged.

A few things I have in mind here are things like the “gish gallop” (100 things wrong with evolution on a single powerpoint slide, making it literally impossible to disprove all of em) But also: Phil Mason’s debate with Ray Comfort … like I’m obviously more on Mason’s side on the topic but … imagine if that conversation was held in front of a neutral audience of students not read up on the topic? A slick debater like Comfort would have far more sway than … whatever Mason was trying to do.

[3] Ethical concerns In a number of cases protests or demands for no-platforming had less to do with the particular topic and more with the ethics or background of the person in question. Say that a speaker gets invited to speak on engineering, but they’re infamous for basically talking online about how gay people deserve to burn & the person in question relates to certain countries having the death penalty for homosexuality.

If a school actively invites someone & students have issues with this not because of the topic, but because they have significant ethical concerns related to the background of a speaker, would you agree that it’s understandable/acceptable for them to at least protest this? (And for the school to switch speakers if they agree with the sentiment?) There are plenty of things you can fill in here, ranging from a speaker having white nationalist ties, just vaguely discriminatory twitter activity or a situation, we’ve actually had here in the Netherlands, where an actual murderer, gangster, and kidnapper was made the guest of a college tour program: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Willem_Holleeder )

Personally I’m not in favor of “Oh schools should just invite anyone, for any reason, at any time, with any background”, not necessarily because I think students shouldn’t be “challenged” but because I expect a level of quality control and respect. If a school I worked at/college I studied at decided to give an open platform to someone whose entire talk is about how “Hitler was right all along”, I’d be absolutely pissed. That has little to do with not wanting to be challenged & more with common decency. Anyway, I was curious (mostly based on those three points) if there are situations where you’d agree/argue that a speaker is indeed not qualified and that providing them a platform to speak would be a mistake? Where exactly would you draw the boundaries between “challenging” students & simply inviting people who don’t belong in an academic setting?

Thanks for reading and kind regards, Guido

Nano Does Nottingham Does Comics

Yesterday evening I spent a fun few hours at the Nottingham Writers’ Studio with my colleagues and friends Brigitte Nerlich, Shey Hargreaves, and Charli Vince. We were invited to a bimonthly event called Nottingham Does Comics. This does exactly what it says on the tin: it’s a forum, and I quote, “by and for anybody interested in reading, creating, publishing, selling or studying new work and new horizons in the comics medium.”

My knowledge of graphic novels and comics unfortunately petered out quite some time ago but I was a huge 2000 AD fan when I was growing up (and well beyond when I stopped growing up). I have stacks and stacks of issues of 2000 AD in the attic, and a number of graphic novels on my book shelves at home. My favourite of the genre is the Dredd classic, America. A number of the Sláine volumes run a close (joint) second, however.

Given my lack of graphic novel expertise, you might ask why I was attending — and, indeed, speaking at — Nottingham Does Comics? All is revealed in the flyer below…

ndc.jpg

The script for Open Day is finished and Charli, who joined the team quite recently, is now relishing the challenge of bringing Shey’s engaging (and amusing) characters to life via her fantastic artwork. (There’ll be regular updates at Charli’s website). Shey and Charli described to the NDC audience just how they’re translating the research we do to the graphic novel format (in their own inimitable style). Brigitte, who has a long-standing interest in nano images, is documenting the process at the Making Science Public blog.

In addition to having the opportunity to plug Open Day we also got to hear about James Walker‘s fascinatingly innovative Dawn Of The Unread project. (That title alone was all it took for me to shell out for a copy of the …Unread compilation you can see pictured at the bottom of the flyer above). James’ talk was a thoroughly absorbing, and very funny, discussion of the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of the Dawn Of The Unread project. He touched on his concerns about the extent to which books (and libraries) are being pushed aside in favour of rather more immediate — and, too often, significantly more shallow — online sources. Let’s just say that James’ arguments on this theme resonated with me just a little. (I’ll expand on this in a future post).

We owe a big debt of thanks to both John “Brick” Clark for the invitation to speak about Open Day at the NDC event and to our host, Jessica Cormack, who made us feel right at home (despite some of us having a shocking lack of knowledge of the comics scene!). Thanks also to all at NDC for the hospitality. Oh, and the mince pies.

And I should of course thank those who have generously funded the Open Day project: the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (via the grant described in this post) and I’m A Scientist, Get Me Out Of Here.