If it looks like a duck…

Last week I attended, and spoke at, a session entitled “Frontiers of Scanning Probe Microscopy” at this year’s Microscience Microscopy Congress in Manchester. The focus of the presentation I gave there — and it’s a recurrent theme in the talks and seminars I give at the moment — was the thorny problem of identifying and interpreting artefacts in images of atoms and molecules.

Microscopists tend to be skeptical about that old maxim, “seeing is believing”. But, as I’ll show below, sometimes we’re simply not skeptical enough. This is not just an issue for those involved in imaging and microscopy — it’s at the core of all science: how do we know our measurements are an accurate picture of reality? (Whichever version of reality we prefer…).

Every image out there, regardless of how it was created, is a convolution of the properties of the object and the characteristics of the imaging system. (And that includes our eyes). The word convolution has its roots in the Latin convolvere, meaning “to roll together”. That’s a great description of the mathematical physics underpinning the process: the functions describing the object and the imaging system are indeed rolled together (via a convolution integral).

Twenty-five years ago, the Hubble telescope gave us a spectacularly (un)illuminating insight into the essence of convolution. The images below, taken from the Wiki page for the HST, vividly show the effects of the convolution process when the imaging characteristics of the telescope were, let’s say, rather poor (on the left) and when they were much improved by the addition of corrective optics (on the right).


The imaging system — and this holds true for any imaging system, be it a microscope, telescope, camera, or whatever arbitrary combination of optics we put together — is characterised via a very simple concept: the point spread function. That function does exactly what it says on the tin: it captures how the image of a single point in the object spreads in space as a result of the imaging system. We then take the point spread function and apply it in turn to all of the points in an object in order to determine what the resulting image will be. For the HST images above, the point spread function is substantially broader for the image on the left than for that on the right.

I should stress that these types of convolution effect are, of course, not limited to images — they hold for any measurement and any type of signal. Ten years ago, I taught an undergraduate module on Fourier analysis and spent quite some time on convolution. (I’ll save the elegance of the Fourier treatment of convolution for a future post). I used the various sound samples below to show the students how convolution works for an audio, rather than a visual, signal. In this case, the point spread function is the response of the surroundings (be it a cave, lecture theatre, auditorium, forest, classroom…) to a very short, sharp signal: the audio equivalent of a single pixel or point. Think of it like making one short hand-clap in a room: the point spread function, which for audio signals is called the impulse response function, is the sound of that clap reverberating. (Yes, the hand-clap is just an approximation to the type of short, sharp signal — i.e. impulse — we need but it serves to make the point.)

So, let’s take a large concert hall. Here’s the impulse response for the hall:

Now consider a space which is rather less grand (at least in terms of its audio characteristics). An ice cavern, say…

Note the very audible differences between the impulse response for the concert hall and for the cavern.

Now let’s take an audio signal completely at random. Like this…

If we convolve the Pythons’ Gregorian chant with the impulse response for the concert hall, here’s what we get.

And this is the convolution of the chant with the impulse response for the ice cavern:

Just as with the HST images, the response of the system (the concert hall or the ice cavern in this case) can be worked out from its audio “point spread function” (the impulse response).

For scanning probe microscopy (SPM), however, we’re in a whole new world of pain when it comes to deciphering the contribution of the imaging system to the image we see. Far from being a static distortion as in the HST optics, the scanning probe itself responds dynamically to the object under study. The simple point spread function approach breaks down. And this can lead to some very misleading images indeed…

My first love in research was, and will always be, SPM. I’ve written about the power and pitfalls of the technique in detail before but the concept at the heart of the technique is really very simple indeed. (Its execution rather less so). We take an exceptionally sharp probe — terminated in a single atom or molecule — and move it very close to a surface, an interface, or a single atom or molecule. When i say “very close”, I mean within a few atomic diameters, or, in the highest resolution work, about a single atom’s distance from a surface. At those distances a number of forces and interactions come into play including, in particular, chemical bond formation and, as described in this post for the Institute of Physics’ physicsfocus blog last year, electron-electron repulsion due to the Pauli exclusion principle. By scanning the probe back and forth (using piezoelectric motors) we can measure the variation of those forces within a single molecule and convert that signal to an image.

Leo Gross and co-workers at the IBM research labs at Rüschlikon in Zurich pioneered a new sub-field of scanning probe microscopy when they showed back in 2009 that images of the internal architecture of single molecules could be captured. The agreement between these images and the ball-and-stick models used by chemists (and physicists) to represent molecules is striking, to put it mildly. While the picture of the tip in the figure to the right is an artist’s representation, the image of the molecule directly below is the actual experimental data measured for a single pentacene molecule, the ball-and-stick model for which is shown at the foot of the figure (grey spheres are carbon, white spheres are hydrogen — it’s a molecule so simple even physicists can understand it.)


Ultrahigh resolution images showing submolecular structure in exquisite detail for a variety of molecules followed (as described in this book chapter). But a number of SPM research groups across the world, including our team at Nottingham, were particularly keen to ascertain whether intermolecular bonds (rather than, or in addition to, intramolecular bonds) could be resolved using the method introduced by IBM Zurich. Nottingham has a long track record — through the efforts of the research groups of my colleagues Peter Beton and Neil Champness — of exploiting hydrogen bonds in the assembly of supramolecular systems. Hydrogen bonds are also of key importance in biochemistry, including, of course, in underpinning base pair interactions in DNA. Could we actually see hydrogen bonds between molecules using probe microscopy?

We started the experiments.

And we were over the moon when we acquired this image of a hydrogen-bonded lattice of molecules shortly afterwards…


 …particularly as we could apparently map the “filamentary” features between the molecules directly onto where we expected the hydrogen bonds (the dotted lines in the image below) to be:


While we were puzzling over how to interpret the image — just why did the hydrogen bonds appear so bright compared to the bonds inside the molecules? — we were somewhat less over the moon to be scooped on the first ‘observation’ of hydrogen bonds, as described in the article below. (Click on the image for the full Chemistry World piece).


Note the social media hits on that article: the images certainly created a stir.

Once more it looks like there’s exceptionally good agreement between the positions of the hydrogen-bond features in the probe microscope image on the left above and those expected on the basis of the chemistry (as sketched in the diagram to the right).

But, again, why are the H-bonds so bright in the image? The authors’ own calculations showed that the electron density between the molecules could not account for the brightness — there just wasn’t enough charge there. (This chimed with our experience, as we described in a paper published a few months later. (Free to read — no paywall)).

Even though the positions of the features in the images met all of our expectations with regard to where we’d expect hydrogen bonds to be observed, was it possible that it was simply some type of image artefact? Were those ‘bonds’ nothing more than nanoscopic will-o’-the-wisps? Could Nature really be that cruel? (That’s Nature as in the universe around us, not Nature the journal. Scientists all know just how cruel Nature can be…).

Yes, Nature is that cruel.

It turns out that the intermolecular features readily appear in simulations based around the type of simple interatomic potentials we explain to our 1st year undergraduate students. (See, for example, the sections on Lennard-Jones and Morse potentials in Chapter 2 of this ebook). The simulations in question know nothing about the electron density due to bonding between the molecules — they are based solely on the atomic coordinates, i.e. the positions of the atoms in the molecules. And yet, as the images below show, the simulations — which have been developed by a number of groups in parallel, particularly those of Pavel Jelinek at the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic and Peter Liljeroth at Aalto University in Finland — provide exceptionally good agreement with the experimental images. (The figure below is taken from this paper by Prokop Hapala and co-workers in Jelinek’s group, along with a team at Forschungszentrum Juelich comprising Stefan Tautz, Ruslan Termirov, Christian Wagner and Georgy Kichin).


So if we’re not really seeing bonds, just what is going on?

When acquiring ultrahigh resolution images of the type pioneered by Leo Gross and colleagues, it is generally the case that the tip is terminated — either deliberately or inadvertently — with a single molecule. (The eagle-eyed among you might have noticed the CO molecule hanging off the end of the tip in the artist’s impression of the pentacene imaging experiment above). The molecular probe can flex and pivot as it is dragged across the target molecule — the apex of the tip bends back and forth due to the forces it experiences from the atoms of the molecules underneath. And that bending motion gives rise to the intermolecular features.

No intermolecular bonds required.

In a clever experimental design, Sampsa Hämäläinen, Liljeroth and co-workers used a molecule which forms hydrogen bonds at some places, but not at others, to highlight the exceptionally important role of the probe in generating spurious intermolecular features. The same type of effect has also been observed for halogen bonding and, most recently, for a system where no intermolecular bonds at all are expected: a lattice of buckyballs (C60 molecules). (I presented these latter data at the conference in Manchester.)

What’s more, and to add to the pain, even if we ‘lock down’ the probe molecule in the simulations — which we did for our calculations — so that it can’t flap around, we’re still left with the point spread function to contend with. The probe has a finite width (in terms of its electron ‘cloud’) and, as pointed out by Hapala and colleagues, this can also generate artefacts via convolution between the probe and the target molecule.

Douglas Adams once said

If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, we have at least to consider the possibility that we have a small aquatic bird of the family anatidae on our hands.

It’s indeed possible. But when it comes to science, it can look like a duck, waddle like a duck, and quack like a duck…

…but all too often it can be a goose.

Yes, we’re all individuals

…or Why I Disagree with Telescoper: Religion Is A Diversity Issue

A few days ago, Peter Coles, aka Telescoper, wrote a typically punchy and engaging post on the question of where religion fits within the equality and diversity programme in higher education. (I’d have responded sooner but a workshop on Monday, a conference on Tuesday, and this last night meant that I’ve been otherwise engaged. I know that Peter will be especially interested in the latter).

Peter writes at the start of his post,

I gather that there are some who find the inclusion of “religion” to be somehow inappropriate…

I suspect that Peter may well be referring to yours truly. It could be entirely coincidental, of course, but shortly before his blog post appeared I sent Peter — who was a colleague here at Nottingham for quite a number of years — an e-mail highlighting both the STFC statement and the Times Higher Education article on religion as a diversity issue to which he refers. Only Peter knows whether his post was indeed prompted by my missive.

On very many issues, Peter and I are very similar in our views (at least going by what he posts online). I’ve learnt a great deal from Peter’s In The Dark blog over the years, particularly on the subjects of Bayesian statistics and jazz. And with regard to certain  key aspects of diversity and equality — I should note before I go any further that I am a member of our School’s Diversity Committee — Peter and I are in full agreement.

But, as a certain former Professor of Public Understanding of Science based at a university somewhat south of Nottingham has said, a “flabbiness of the intellect afflicts otherwise rational people when confronted with long-established religions“. I was rather disappointed to see lazy age-old arguments — comprehensively rebutted time and time again but they keep on coming — about the perceived value of religious faith pop up in Peter’s post. He argues that many smart people he knows are religious. Sure. And very many smart people believe very many silly things indeed (including, as Peter himself points out, Issac Newton). So what?

I agree entirely with Peter that everyone should be free to believe whatever they like. Of course. Who could seriously argue with that? I, for one, have always been particularly keen on Douglas Adams’ wonderful Great Green Arkleseizure creation myth (and the impending Coming Of The Great White Handerkerchief), although my children are rather more taken with the Flying Spaghetti Monster. (Heretics.) There’s a whole smorgasbord of myths out there to choose from — knock yourself out for all that I care.

But the freedom to believe in whatever you choose comes with a proviso. A big proviso. Believe whatever you like… as long as your beliefs do not denigrate others. Even then, you’re still of course entirely free to place your faith in whatever belief system you like. But don’t expect not to be challenged about it. However much we might skirt around this issue in order not to offend anyone of faith, it’s clearly the case that religion too often embodies offensive and divisive beliefs.

Here’s one example. (I wrote about this at length, as is my wont, here.)

Here’s another.

And here’s another.

Frustratingly, the Equality Act 2010 gives special provision to religious faith. It actively bolsters the type of bigotry embedded at the heart of many faiths, as the British Humanist Association has highlighted.

Some are more equal than others.

Throughout history, religion has had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into a world which has moved on in terms of womens’ rights, LGBT rights…human rights in general. Religious faith generally acts to impede progress towards a more equal and diverse society — it is divisive and tribal at its core.

Of course, I’m not saying anything startlingly new here. And many of you may well dismiss everything above — if you’ve got this far — as Dawkins-esque in its stridency. But it’s no use lazily dismissing Dawkins as a fundamentalist, as Peter does. Ad hominem slurs are easy. Let’s instead play the ball…

Although I’ve got two copies of The God Delusion on my shelves — I bought myself a copy the day before a graduating PhD student got me the book as a thank you present (unbeknownst to me, of course) — I’m certainly no cheerleader for Dawkins. A hell of a lot of what he’s said over the last few years has been appallingly stupid, exceptionally damaging, and sexist to its core. But as regards his views on religion, dismissing the well-reasoned arguments in the following video as “fundamentalist” is not, it must be said, the most powerful of rebuttals.

Similarly, for those of us who have sat through countless hours of scripture readings during various religious services, his character reference for the Judeo-Christian god is clearly spot on. Even a cursory reading of the bible will confirm that.

[God is] a vindictive bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser , a misogynistic, homophobic racist, an infanticidal, genocidal, phillicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully

Peter argues that it’d be unprofessional and simply inappropriate to challenge religion in the context of, for example, the STFC summer school. I largely agree. Perhaps surprisingly, I’ve managed to get through a considerable number of scientific conferences without once standing up and criticising a speaker for their religious beliefs. Indeed, by my reckoning, this is true for all of the conferences I’ve attended. I’ve also sat through very many weddings, funerals, and baptisms and bitten my tongue. Hard. In fact, I’m godfather for children of friends and relatives. Hypocritical? Yes, but, like Peter, I’m just as capable of being the soul of discretion and not challenging religious faith every waking moment. (Well, OK, “soul of discretion” is perhaps just a little bit of a stretch.)

But Peter misses the point. First, it is not necessarily the case that criticism of religion would be inappropriate at a scientific meeting, including that STFC school. What about a throwaway, off-the-cuff remark on the ludicrous claims of creationism in the context of our understanding of the evolution of the universe? Offensive or not? To whom? And who decides?

But it’s the broader aspects of including religion within the diversity agenda in higher education, highlighted by the THE article, which are my key concern. I’ve repeatedly heard it said that, for many, their religious faith is as immutable as their race. For all of the reasons discussed in this powerful article, this makes no sense at all. The idea of immutable faith particularly, and especially, has no place within a university. Universities are about challenging ideas, concepts, values, and beliefs. Immutability is simply not an option.

Homophobic Christians are fond of saying that they hate the sin, but love the sinner. When it comes to religion as a diversity issue, I respect people of faith, but will always disrespect their faith.

Sex(ism). Murder. Art. And Science.


Trigger warning. If you find that you are unable to respond to criticism of sexism and misogyny without randomly arranging terms such as SJW, white knight, cuck, kill yourself, bitch, whore, rape, professional victims, PC gone mad, First Amendment, feminazi, fuck (and other assorted expletives) into grammatically dubious and arbitrarily capitalised boilerplate then you may find the following post both intellectually and emotionally challenging. A strong and potentially damaging kneejerk response or, indeed, extreme overreaction may result.

You have been warned.

The furore surrounding #TimHunt’s sexist comments continues to rage.

And rightly so.

As my erstwhile colleague, Peter Coles, has pointed out in a typically clear-headed and eloquent piece, what Hunt said was indefensible. In a similarly insightful blog post, Michael Eisen convincingly argues that Hunt’s attempts to defend the indefensible were certainly not due to any lack of awareness of how bad the problem of sexism in science can be,

while both Dorothy Bishop and David Colquhoun, among others, have pointed out just why the Royal Society was correct to ask Prof. Hunt to step down from membership of the Biological Sciences Awards Panel.

I say all of this as someone who has met Prof. Hunt and attended meetings with him (and others) in the context of challenging the damaging focus of the research councils on near-term and near-market socioeconomic impact in science funding. In those discussions, Tim came across as a modest, insightful individual who passionately advocates the value of curiosity-driven science. I found him to be personable, likable, and, indeed, often inspiring, as this BBC4 programme from a few years back amply demonstrates…

But what he said in that conference in Seoul was beyond dumb. It was crass. And immensely damaging.

I don’t want to retread well-worn ground at this point — particularly when (i) Profs. Bishop, Coles, Colquhoun, et al. have done all the legwork, and (ii) the subject of this post isn’t so much the impact of Hunt’s views on academics and researchers as the broader public influence of what he said — but I will note that it is worth considering Tim’s comments in the context of Adrian Sutton’s recent letter to Physics World:


That’s just in physics, but the situation in other scientific disciplines is pretty similar. 1.7% of the postdoctoral research population per year make it through to a full time academic position. That’s how tough it is to get a permanent academic career these days. I know for a fact that what I had in terms of research ‘outputs’ when I got my lectureship in 1997 wouldn’t get me within sniffing distance of a shortlist today.

Prof. Hunt’s comments, regardless of whether they were misjudged 70s-esque ‘humour‘ or not, put the Royal Society in an exceptionally difficult position. The RS is meant to be scrupulously fair in how it distributes its awards and fellowships, the latter being like gold dust and increasingly being the pathway to a permanent lectureship. And yet Tim decides he’ll shout his mouth off — with just possibly, maybe, a smattering of bravado about not being cowed by the “PC Brigade”? — and say that he doesn’t really want women researchers in his lab because they burst out crying if they’re criticised? When he sits on the Biological Sciences Awards Panel? And when, as Eisen points out, he was more than aware of the problems which continue to plague women in science?

And no, the argument that “Well, he’s 72 you know, let’s cut him some slack given his age and the environment he grew up in” just. doesn’t. wash. Over to Colquhoun (78) again:

I should perhaps also note that I’ve been managing research students and postdocs for the past 18 years. It should not need saying — but, depressingly, it does — that Hunt’s remarks certainly do not reflect my experience of supervising female research students and postdocs.

It’s the impact of Tim Hunt’s statements outside the ivory towers/dreaming spires/[insert cliché of choice] of academia, however, that’s the real subject of this post.

I suspect that Prof. Hunt may be oblivious to the shockingly high levels of not only sexism, but deeply ingrained vicious misogyny, which infest the web. Like this. And this. And what’s described here. And, while we’re at it, this.

Hunt’s comments are, of course, a universe away from the absolutely appalling abuse which is meted out online. But the problem is that his statements feed directly into, and are exploited by, that sexist/misogynistic culture. Let’s consider the case of Milo Yiannopoulos, described by The Observer, no less, as “the pit bull of tech media” and a poster boy for many of the more rabid sexists and misogynists out there.

Last week, Yiannopoulos appeared in a debate with Dr. Emily Grossman on the topic of sexism in science, prompted, naturally, by Hunt’s comments. I watched the debate slack-jawed in astonishment. That Yiannopoulos could manage to trot out so much lazy, uninformed, stereotypical misinformation — oh, let’s not mince our words; I mean shite — in such a short space of time was a quite remarkable achievement. After being invited to put his views across, within the first minute or so he managed to follow up a complete non-sequitur of a non-argument with an entirely groundless assertion regarding women’s motivations for doing science. Here’s exactly what he said:

“We hear a lot from scientists. We hear a lot, in particular, from female scientists. But the fact is that there is some reason to suppose that there are…ummm…there is an advantage to being a man in certain subjects.

There’s reason to suppose that gender essentialism, biological determinism, whatever you want to call it…The fact that there are male brains and female brains may indeed have some basis in science.”

Let’s pause there. “May indeed have some basis in science“. I suspect that Yiannopoulos — who, it must be said, is a seasoned media ‘player’ — knows full well that he’s skating on thin ice here. (Here’s a very good article by Tom Stafford, a Lecturer in Psychology and Cognitive Science at Sheffield on the age-old nature vs nurture debate regarding brain differences. Neuroskeptic‘s blog posts (e.g. here and here) on the subject are also highly recommended. I must admit that I was astounded by the prevalence of under-powered statistical ‘analyses’ after spending some time reading papers in this field.)

Anyway, here’s what Yiannopoulos says next:

“This is thrown out of the window completely by feminists and female academics who refuse to accept that there’s any reason whatsoever why there might be a gender imbalance”

Hmmm. “…by feminists and female academics…”. We’ll let that one hang there. Let’s see where Milo is going with his argument…

“Two things on that. One, the science is very much still out on that…”


He’s going precisely nowhere.

Because his argument is totally lacking in any self-consistency:

“May indeed have some basis in science…The science is very much still out on that”.

Cannily, Yiannopoulos plants the seed that the science supports his initial claims about gender differences. Then, less than thirty seconds later, he back-tracks. However, the important thing is that he’s planted the seed — a frustratingly disingenuous debating tactic. (But then, it’s just possible that adopting a principled position isn’t really what Milo is all about…)

But what’s Milo’s second point?

Two, if you look at equality in society, if you look, for example, at Bangladesh vs Norway, what you notice is that the number of women in science and technology subjects actually goes down as societies get more equal because women simply don’t make the same choices as female academics and feminists would like them to.

Women actually don’t want to go into the sciences on the whole…

And the source(s) of Yiannopoulos’ evidence for this astoundingly sweeping claim is…? How credible is that evidence? Does it represent a consensus scientific view?

He doesn’t tell us.

Strange, that.

Shortly after the debate, Yiannopoulos wrote this: Why do feminists cook up stories about misogyny when they lose debates. He, in his usual modest and understated manner, clearly feels that the debate went his way. A link to his post somehow ended up in my Twitter timeline. So I sent Yiannopoulos and his acolytes a number of tweets asking for the evidence — admittedly, in a somewhat, errm, robust manner — to support his claims in the debate, and, in turn, I ended up embroiled in some lengthy Twitter-spats about the reliability (and lack thereof) of the quantitative analysis in papers on gender differences.

What was Milo’s response to being challenged on the matter of data and evidence?


Followed by


[Update June 02 2018 — Tweets no longer available. I deleted my Twitter account for reasons explained elsewhere at this blog. Milo’s account was suspended.]

Not for the first time in the #TimHunt debacle was I reminded of the cartoons here. [Before those of you who have posters of Milo on your wall click on that link, remember the trigger warning…]

OK, let’s now finally get to the rationale behind the title of this post and the associated image above. (Apologies that it’s taken a while, but then context is everything.)

The title of the blog might give it away for some, but I’m a huge fan of heavy metal and all its various sub-genres. (There are, of course, very deep and fundamental links between metal and quantum physics, so my love of metal isn’t entirely non-professional). Metal has, let’s say, had its issues with sexism, as wonderfully lampooned by the brilliant Christopher Guest in this classic scene from This Is…Spinal Tap.(My favourite ever film).

(Shame that the punchline is in the title of the video but if you haven’t seen Spinal Tap yet, you haven’t lived…)

Since the #shirtstorm incident last year — which we covered in a Year 4 undergraduate module at Nottingham called The Politics, Perception, and Philosophy of Physics (see Slides #8 and the set of whiteboard photos at the bottom of that page) — I’ve been struck by some of the parallels between the “PMRC wars” that the metal ‘community’ (for want of a better term) fought in the 80s, and #shirtstorm, #GamerGate, and the entire “Don’t infringe our rights to say whatever the fuck we like” flavour of a lot of the debate surrounding sexism and misogyny.

I was a teenager in the eighties and remember being incensed by the PMRC’s attempts to lock down metal music. Can I understand why a community which feels beleaguered and under attack might kick back against what it sees as threats to its autonomy and creativity? Yes. Do I think that banning words and images is the way to go? No. That would be entirely hypocritical given that I’m a fan of Slayer’s music (well, up to about album #5. Their output has tailed off quite a bit since then). The title of this post and the image are taken from a t-shirt that Tom Araya, the lead vocalist in Slayer, wore on, I believe, the South Of Heaven tour in 1988. (I told you we’d get to an explanation eventually…). Sex. Murder. Art is also the title of a Slayer song. With exceptionally vicious lyrics.

Metal has progressed a great deal over the last few decades when it comes to sexism. I urge you to read this insightful and intelligent article by Dom Lawson on the evolution of metal. Here’s a choice quote:

…heavy music has spent the last few decades steadily edging away from an overriding culture of crass misogyny and making the whole scene a lot more welcoming and palatable to women in the process.

There are also intriguing parallels between the #TimHunt case and what Lawson says in his article above with regard to sexism being explained away as humour:

But no, Dom, I hear you cry, it’s not sexist. It’s funny! Look at those vibrating butt-cheeks! Brilliant. It’s probably ironic or something.

Well, no. It’s still sexist.

The progression away from the “overriding culture of crass misogyny” to which Lawson refers hasn’t happened by banning certain albums, lyrics, or bands. Or infringing freedom of speech. That would be entirely counterproductive. It’s happened by calling out sexism and misogyny when we see it. And via debate and argument.

“But, but, but… Hunt banned…witch hunt riding through…fascists…caused his downfall…freedom of speech. Those feminazis aren’t interested in debate.”

OK, OK. Calm down. Remember the trigger warning.

First, let me direct you back up the page to my tweet in response to Mr. Yiannopoulos blocking me. More importantly, let me repeat that context is everything. Hunt was entirely free to say what he did. And he did. And he was criticised for it. I’ll let the wonderful xkcd explain:

Of course, this would mean that Milo Yiannopoulos, by blocking me, considers me to be an asshole.

You know what? I’m rather proud of that.

What’s wrong with being sexy? Discuss.

Sure you’re not meant to take it seriously


Originally published at physicsfocus.

It’s a little over two years since my first post for physicsfocus and I’m sad to say that this one is going to be my last. I found out last month from Chris White – the physicsfocus editor, self-confessed word monkey, and the bloke who’s been in the unenviable position of having to edit and upload my ranty, vitriol-fuelled posts for much of the time I’ve been writing for the blog – that the site is going to be discontinued in the very near future. *Sob*

I was invited to contribute to physicsfocus in late 2012 by Kelly Oakes, who established the blog and whose infectious enthusiasm for, and commitment to, the project played a major role in my decision to start blogging. (Kelly moved to take up the role of Science Editor for Buzzfeed towards the end of the first year of physicsfocus.) Prior to physicsfocus I had eschewed blogging with the usual, somewhat sniffy, “I could never find time for that” excuse, which, as my physicsfocus colleague, Athene Donald, points out, is a far from compelling reason not to blog.

I owe a great debt of gratitude to Kelly for the invitation to write for physicsfocus. Over the last two years I’ve found blogging to be not only a great form of catharsis, but an especially useful way to hone my writing and to train myself out of the staid, formulaic style that is the hallmark of the academic paper. (You know the type of thing, “In recent years, phenomenon X has become of increasing interest…”. Yawn.) And, more simply, I just enjoy blogging, even if I agree entirely with Douglas Adams: “Writing is easy. You only need to stare at a piece of blank paper until your forehead bleeds.” (I’ll add a belated #TowelDay hashtag in honour of Adams. I’d very likely never have signed up to the burble of Twitter either if it weren’t for physicsfocus.)

Given the title above, and the preceding few paragraphs, you could be forgiven for thinking that this is going to be a rather light-hearted swansong post. ‘Fraid not.

Something absolutely momentous happened last month in Ireland and I could never forgive myself if I let the moment go without getting my thoughts down on paper (well, in pixels at least). I was in tears at times as I followed the #MarRef tweets, and overjoyed by the final result: 62.1% yes to 37.9% no. (1,201,607 votes to 734,300 with a turnout of 60.5%). I found this tweet particularly affecting:

And this brought another lump to my throat:

I was raised in the heart of rural Ireland, in the 70s and early 80s, in a border county (Monaghan) and in a strongly Catholic environment: rosary every night, mass as often as was humanly possible, First Holy Communion, Confirmation, Catholic primary school followed by an all-boys Catholic secondary school (nicknamed The Sem because it used to be a seminary), sacraments, the Stations of the Cross, confession. (Christ. Confession. I still shudder when I think about walking into that darkened – and too often dank – cubicle to confess my sins.) In other words, I experienced the full gamut of the pomp and circumstance that is the Catholic faith.

And I despised it.

The dismissal of my faith, such as it ever was, happened when I was a teenager. As a young child, I was, however, deeply confused and concerned because I simply couldn’t understand what was wrong with me. Why couldn’t I just believe like everyone else at school? Why did I have these doubts? Surely I was destined for hell if I didn’t just accept what I was told in church? After all, Jesus was clearly not best pleased with Thomas when he asked for evidence (John 20:24-29).

Thomas was rather an inspiring character for me. He did exactly what the majority of us would have done in his situation: he refused to put his trust in hearsay and asked for evidence of the resurrection. And yet, throughout my days at school and church, Thomas’ entirely reasonable doubt was portrayed as a major character flaw – something to be avoided by true believers. Jesus certainly saw it as a problem: “Then Jesus told him, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed’.” (For those who would argue that science and religious mythology should coexist happily, they need to tackle Jesus’ clear admonition of Thomas using rather more compelling arguments than the type outlined here. Faith is anathema to science. This letter in New Scientist a few weeks ago makes the point rather well.).

As a young boy the fact that I could strongly identify with Thomas’ scepticism, despite the fact that his justified doubt was very much frowned upon by priests and teachers, continually worried the bejaysus out of me. It was, however, a couple of defining, and unsettling, moments in class that began to set the seal on my rejection of Catholic beliefs and dogma (and, ultimately, of religious mythology in general). The first of these I describe in the video below, filmed by Brady Haran almost five years ago and which – as you’ll see if you visit the YouTube site – has now accrued well over 12,000 comments. (I’ve noted before that Brady’s videos often attract comments and discussion ‘below the line’ which are significantly more intelligent and better informed than is the norm for YouTube comments sections. This, unfortunately, is not quite the case for the “Do physicists believe in god?” video.)

The second, particularly unnerving, episode at primary school happened when the teacher asked the class the following question (I can’t remember in what context): “If you could be anyone for a day, who would it be?”

Hands shot up around the classroom. “Superman”. “The Six Million Dollar Man”. “The Bionic Woman”. “Luke Skywalker”.

My answer?

“God, sir”.

I truly believed that my teacher would be really happy with that answer – after all, who was the most important being in the cosmos? Who had we been told was the most wonderful, all-loving father? On that basis, who wouldn’t want to be God for a day and experience all that love?

My teacher’s response? “Satan wanted to be God”.

I was nine. I had nightmares.

A common response to these anecdotes goes something along these lines: “Oh, dear. That’s shocking. But that was a problem with your particular over-zealous teacher, it’s not a problem with Catholicism/faith/religion per se. Our faith is all about acceptance, love, and reasoned belief”. Except, demonstrably, it’s not.

The events surrounding the same-sex marriage referendum in Ireland have brought home the appallingly divisive and prejudiced attitudes that are often borne of religion. What reason, other than prejudice – bolstered, if not engendered, by religious belief – could there be for a no vote? (This is a genuine question and if you have an answer, please let me know in the comments section below. But please don’t tell me it’s about the supposed negative effects of same-sex parenting on children. My fellow Dublin City University alumnus, David Robert Grimes, dealt with this issue conclusively in The Guardian on the day of the vote).

How can anyone claim that religion invariably provides a superior ethical/moral framework to humanism when the Catholic Church has said that Ireland’s yes vote is a defeat for humanity? How can anyone who would like to establish a fairer, kinder, more equal society – i.e. the very virtues Jesus proclaimed (and I can quote chapter and verse if you’re interested, one of the questionable benefits of spending a good part of thirteen or so years on your knees in the name of Catholicism/Christianity) – identify with that type of prejudice? Why in the name of the Almighty Zarquon would anyone with any scrap of compassion and respect – let alone love – for their fellow humans vote no if it weren’t for the stranglehold of religious faith?

The title of this post is taken from the insightful musings of the delightful Fr. Dougal McGuire in the very first episode of Father Ted: “Sure it’s no more peculiar than all that stuff we learned in the seminary, you know, heaven and hell and everlasting life and all that type of thing. You’re not meant to take it seriously.” (Coincidentally, Ardal O’Hanlan also grew up in Co. Monaghan.)

Dougal further expounded on his difficulties with religious faith in a discussion with Bishop O’Neill in the Series 2 episode entitled “Tentacles of Doom”. Here we can clearly see that his doubts are not just related to Catholicism but are truly ecumenical in scope:

Bishop O’Neill: So Father, do you ever have any doubts? Is your faith ever tested? Any trouble you’ve been having with beliefs or anything like that?

Father Dougal: Well you know the way God made us, and he’s looking down at us from heaven?

Bishop O’Neill: Yeah…

Father Dougal: And then his son came down and saved everyone and all that?

Bishop O’Neill: Uh huh…

Father Dougal: And when we die, we’re all going to go to heaven?

Bishop O’Neill: Yes. What about it?

Father Dougal: Well that’s the part I have trouble with!

I would very much like to believe that Father Ted played a big role in helping to secure the Yes vote. Others have certainly pointed out the importance of Ted in accelerating the decline of the church in Ireland: “a comedy that affectionately mocked the old ways while simultaneously, mercilessly exposing them”.

At this point those of you familiar with WB Yeats’ take on the Irish – “Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy” – may well be nodding sagely to yourselves. I’ll admit that it does seem rather mean-spirited to be berating Catholicism to this extent when it was so soundly defeated last month. But the issue here is much, much broader than just Catholicism.

This upsetting article is from the Guardian last week. We live in a world where we can communicate virtually instantaneously with friends and family across the world, observe the universe as it was roughly 13 billion years ago, and mimic the conditions present only fractions of a second after the big bang. And yet a huge proportion of humanity remains in thrall to Bronze Age/Iron Age/New Age myths (of a staggering variety of hues).

“An abiding sense of tragedy”? Yep. Yeats was spot on.

I’ve really enjoyed reading my colleagues’ posts, and occasionally venting my spleen, for physicsfocus. I’ll miss the site immensely. I’m going to sign off with the signature closing words of the late, great, and brilliantly acerbic Dave Allen: “Thank you, good night, and may your god go with you”.

Image: The incredulity of St Thomas, by Caravaggio

6 Responses to Sure you’re not meant to take it seriously

    1. transcendentape says:

      If you plan to continue blogging elsewhere, please post it here or through one of Brady Haran’s hundreds of youtube channels. I was lucky to happen upon your writing through Brady, and I’d hate to miss it if you carry on in a new location.

    1. Hamish Johnston says:

      Perhaps the most interesting question is why it took so long in Ireland? Most other staunchly Catholic western societies liberalized decades ago. A classic case in point is Quebec, which 60 years ago would have been very similar to Ireland both in terms of its Catholic nationalism and cultural isolation. Yet Quebec went through a rapid “quiet revolution” in the late ’60s and is now one of the most liberal societies in the west.

    1. Kuldeep Panesar says:

      I have enjoyed immensely your posts over the years, which have contained much food for thought, humour, and a refreshingly frank and honest critique of the nonsense that surrounds scientific research. If only there were more voices like yours, and people brave enough to stick their head above the parapet.

      I hope that your blogging continues elsewhere.

Still not in the World University Rankings Top 50? Five sure-fire routes to successful academic management

quality-787673_960_720Originally published at physicsfocus.

Last time round I bemoaned the “inspirational leader” model of management that infests universities but promised that I’d be a little more constructive in my next post. In the meantime, this splendid piece on the mismanagement of universities (written by Rob Briner, a professor of organisational psychology at the University of Bath) appeared in the Times Higher Education. In an article that provides many important insights into the malaise in management, this is perhaps the pithiest: “For all but the most careerist, obedient and authority-respecting academics, it is difficult to feel committed to goals that seem, indeed often are, arbitrary”.

THE.pngBriner points to the underwhelming appraisal of senior university managers in this year’s Times Higher’s Best University Workplace survey. The statistics show that almost 50% of all academic staff surveyed are not satisfied with the leadership of their university. Tsk. There is clearly considerable room for improvement. I would suggest that a conservative target of a 20% reduction in the Staff Disgruntlement Index (SDI) should be set (to be reached in – when else? – 2020), and progress towards this goal should form part of the annual Personal Development and Performance Review process for senior management. (Let’s call it our 2020:20 Vision.) The survey reveals that there are many senior managers who could benefit from advice and guidance on how to up their game and enhance their personal effectiveness so as to ensure that their key behavioural competencies are best exploited in attaining their university’s SDI targets. (Ooops, sorry about that – please forgive the momentary lapse into the university vernacular.)

University managers are exceptionally busy people, of course, so I thought it best to distil my advice on leadership improvement into five simple take-home messages.

1. Trust your staff

The majority of academics are highly motivated, hard-working, and keen to establish a strong reputation in their research field and to teach to the best of their ability. They want to do original work that makes a difference. They understand entirely how much competition there is for grants and how much effort they’ll have to put in to maintain their research group.

When they secured a permanent position, they were fully aware of the weight of expectation and the amount of effort it was going to take to do ground-breaking work. They know this because they had worked as a postdoc prior to getting their lectureship and will have had to compete against very strong odds to win that position. (This letter in last month’s Physics World sums up the situation for physics postdocs in the UK. About 1.7% of the postdoctoral population in physics per year can expect to get a permanent position.)

So trust them. And trust the judgement of the school/department/institute that offered them a permanent position. Don’t assume that your staff need to be continually monitored via the same sets of pseudo-statistical, faux-objective, and flawed metrics that all other universities (ab)use. Why not forgo all of that nonsense and help your university genuinely stand out from the crowd?

2. Don’t insult our intelligence

Look, it’s very simple. As a university, you can’t write this type of guff and expect anyone to take you seriously:


Nor should we need to tell you that this is misjudged and misguided:


…and if you think that trumpeting “Pursue Impossible” as your latest slogan is a good idea, maybe you should reconsider just how much money it is that you’re sinking into your “extensive consultation and market research” budget:


Content-free management- and marketing-speak is spiraling out of control in academia (see Colquhoun, passim). What’s particularly galling is that the type of student/teacher/researcher we’d like to attract – i.e. someone with critical thinking skills sufficiently well-developed that they can easily tell when they’re being sold a pup – is going to be put off by trite and embarrassing marketing slogans. If you really can’t help but chase a W1A-esque marketing approach, then at least have the gumption to realise that prestige and brand go hand in hand: for a university, not all publicity is good publicity.

So stop telling us that you’re “committed to excellence” (and parroting other empty drivel from the lexicon of #CorporateUniBollox) and specify explicitly what it is you’re going to do. How much will you spend, on what, and over how many years? Otherwise you’re about as convincing as a directionless politician trotting out empty clichés about appealing to the “aspirational class”.

3. Herding isn’t helpful

Stop wasting so much of our time on redisorganisation by attempting to herd us into your latest Strategic Prioritised Localised Research Themes scheme (to be followed in six months’ time by the new-and-improved Universal Targetified Globalised Research Themes scheme.)

There has been a very welcome, albeit sometimes rather stilted, evolution of research towards multidisciplinarity over the past couple of decades. It is a massive waste of time and effort, however, to erode disciplinary boundaries only to replace them with new barriers arising from the formation of research ‘silos’ based on university strategic priorities (which, of course, are informed by (i.e., cribbed from) the priorities of the research councils and funding bodies).

At Nottingham, for example, we currently have five Global Research Themes (capitalised and italicised, of course – this is important stuff): Cultures and Communication, Digital Futures, Health and Well-Being, Building Long-term Societies, and Transformative Technologies. (Let’s leave aside for now the question of just how fundamental scientific research that doesn’t focus on applications is smuggled into the Global Research Themes.) We’ve recently had a time-consuming Research Priority Area-defining exercise foisted upon us to identify something like thirty RPAs which are embedded within the Global Research Themes. (The graphic which maps out the interdependencies between the RPAs is, excitingly, becoming ever more complex and colourful.) And that’s before we embark on the new Centre and Institute identification process in the coming months.

University management has really only one job when it comes to supporting research: ensure that the best ideas are fostered. Just pay heed to Message #1. Don’t put artificial barriers in our way and let collaborative links and projects develop from the bottom up.

4. Massaging metrics isn’t management.

I think that, deep down, you know this, don’t you? You know that those spreadsheets – all those lovely numbers lined up in columns with colourful headings and listed to three or four ‘significant’ figures – give only an illusion of objectivity. You recognised some time ago that tables of metrics are an entirely inaccurate measure of the value of a school, a department, a ‘unit’, or an individual member of staff. You may even have read this, or this, or this and realised that, yes,using pseudostatistics and number abuse as a proxy for management is simply wrong and, in the worst cases, unethical.

And so you try to placate us. You tell us that “Of course we don’t base our decisions on a simplistic consideration of metrics like impact factor, H-index, grant income, NSS scores…”. But then you have the gall to advise us that we should choose our collaborators on the basis of citation patterns and H-indices. Or that we should improve our NSS league table position when the numbers are often so small that the opinions of one or two students can make all the difference. Or that grant income targets need to be met, regardless of how (in)expensive a scientist’s research might be or how well their research is progressing.

It doesn’t need to be like this. You can make a difference. Challenge the empty-headed abuse of metrics at every committee meeting you attend. Put your head above the parapet and point out that the emperor is stark bollock naked.

5. Chasing rankings is rank futility

By all means crow about your university’s position in a national/international league table if you must. And, if you really are so inclined, cherry-pick the tables to get the results that put your university in the best light. It’s grubby, reeks of desperation, and makes a mockery of any claims about your university’s commitment to developing the critical thinking skills of students. If, however, that’s what you think you need to do to secure your institute’s position in the ‘global marketplace’ then so be it.

But it’s likely that you were once an academic. You may even have taught – or, indeed, may still teach – students the value of being (self-)critical and rigorous in their approach to data. So ask yourself why you now expect staff, students, and parents to credulously swallow the idea that university rankings are in any way credible? Take the time to pop into the Student Room and read what A-level and undergraduate students have to say about university league tables. It’s rather telling that they are significantly more sophisticated and worldly-wise in their appraisal of university rankings than is typical for senior management.

It is futile to chase volatile and methodologically-suspect world university rankings. We become known as a world-leading university when we do world-leading research and teaching. It’s not a difficult equation. Your job, as senior management, is to establish the conditions to allow that to happen.

And that brings us neatly back to Message #1…

Image: https://pixabay.com/en/quality-hook-check-mark-excellent-787673/

Follow the leader?


Originally published at physicsfocus.

I very much hope that a meeting I attended last week at the University of Cambridge will prove to be a key moment, and a major catalyst, in accelerating change in academia. Delivering Equality: Women & Success was billed as a “summit of senior leaders progressing change in academia”, and, as Athene Donald discusses over at her blog, was timed to coincide with both the anniversary of the publication of The Meaning Of Success and International Women’s Day.

The meeting challenged stereotypes and (un)conscious bias, was often thought-provoking and provocative, and regularly confronted the received wisdom – in particular on the question of meritocracy. I learned a great deal both in the formal sessions and via conversations with the delegates over coffee/lunch. Nonetheless, I could have done with rather less of the vapid, corporate, faux-inspirational, TED-style delivery that was a feature of some sessions and is increasingly infesting and infecting academic meetings.

I must admit that I was rather surprised to have been invited to the summit in the first place. The delegate list read like a Who’s Who of UK Academia – Vice-Chancellors, PVCs, Deans, Directors, Chief Executives, Masters of Colleges, Heads of Department, Presidents… Not only am I not in any way involved with the upper echelons of ‘leadership’ at the University of Nottingham (or elsewhere), I have absolutely zero aspirations in that direction. (I think that my invitation to the summit might possibly have been related to this article on parenthood and academia in the Times Higher last year, to which I contributed some thoughts.)

Athene’s post on the background to the Delivering Equality meeting is important and thoroughly recommended. Here I want to focus not so much on the variety of issues that were discussed, but on the implicit – and often explicit – message throughout the day that change should be inspired by, and set in motion by, ‘leaders’: we rank-and-file academics should look to our leaders for inspiration. This is perhaps to be expected given that the summit was targeted at senior leaders, but I am deeply uncomfortable with the concept of leadership in academia. It’s yet another example of the corrosive influence of corporate thinking on our universities. Let me explain.

The ever-inspiring Mary Beard features in The Meaning Of Success. I love this line from her interview: “I’m also such an academic that if somebody says something I don’t agree with, my autopilot response is to answer back.” She also perceptively finds “that the people who are most talented in helping me rethink my ideas often don’t measure up to the more usual marks of success”. Indeed.

I didn’t become an academic in order to be led. Nor did I become an academic to lead others. I’m an academic because I want to contest, argue, debate, explore, and challenge the received wisdom. And, as Prof. Beard puts it, to answer back. I don’t want to follow the leader(s), particularly not when, as described below, they so often demonstrate a remarkable paucity of original and creative thinking. Similarly, I expect PhD students and postdocs in the group to challenge me all the time – if they’re not doing this then I’m simply not doing my job right.

And it’s not just universities that are fixated with leadership. The research councils, including, in particular, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), are committed to “developing leaders”. As just one example, a very large amount of public funding was invested in their Leadership Fellowships programme over a number of years. (Disclaimer: I held one of these fellowships.)

The traditional role of academia – to speak truth to power – has been usurped, like so many aspects of the 21st-century university, by bland – though no less damaging for their blandness – corporate concepts such as brand management, ‘customer’ loyalty, and, of course, leadership. (The other aspect of corporate culture that has been imported, of course, is a rewards system which often has very little connection with performance, as discussed in an article in yesterday’s Observer: ‘Eye-watering’ salary rises for university chiefs cannot be justified, says report.)

Hand-in-hand with the concept of leadership comes a strong and corrosive focus on top-down management and centralisation: leaders have to be seen to be leading. This in turn leads to endless rounds of implementing university-wide strategic priorities, with the leaders scrabbling to assert their particular ‘vision’ for the institution. Academics at the chalkface are expected to fall in line and are not trusted to do their job without the benefit of ‘inspirational’ leadership.

The ubiquitous leadership meme would perhaps be a little less burdensome if academics were led on the basis of original and innovative strategies. But we’re not. Here’s a short, but wholly representative, excerpt from the strategy document of a leading Russell Group university. It doesn’t matter from which university’s blurb I’ve taken this, because it could have come from practically any of them:

“Our vision is to deliver research excellence across all academic disciplines…”

That’s not vision. That’s a total absence of vision. For all of the reasons discussed here, it’s a completely vacuous commitment. It’s worrying enough that this vision statement was written down in the first place; what makes it worse is that it was signed off by the leadership of the university in question. You can also be sure that the assessment of that research ‘excellence’ will be based on precisely the same tired chasing of metrics and league table rankings – no matter how flawed and volatile those tables might be – as every other university.



Lacking creativity.

Devoid of critical thinking.

I think an E grade would be a fair assessment of the majority of university strategy documents.

So what’s the alternative? Well, this blog post is already long enough as it is. In my next post I’ll grasp the nettle and suggest some alternatives to the ‘iconic, inspirational leader’ model. In the meantime, and with tongue placed rather firmly in cheek, I’ll leave you with Douglas Adams’ thoughts on governance and leadership

The major problem—one of the major problems, for there are several—one of the many major problems with governing people is that of whom you get to do it; or rather of who manages to get people to let them do it to them.

“To summarize: it is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it.”

Image: https://pixabay.com/en/leadership-example-leader-manager-913043/