2011 in review

2011 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The Louvre Museum has 8.5 million visitors per year. This blog was viewed about 87,000 times in 2011. If it were an exhibit at the Louvre Museum, it would take about 4 days for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Military Develop New and Targetted Eye in the Sky

Military Develop New and Targetted Eye in the Sky

A new motion tracking system could improve the efficiency of security and military surveillance.

The system, a collaboration between the Naval Research Laboratory and Space Dynamics Laboratory, has been shown in testing to accurately recognise, geographically pin point and take high quality images of moving objects, without any human input.

In the tests, carried out in March of this year, the system was able to track vehicles and also showed the possibility of being able to identify humans. “The demonstration was a complete success,” said Dr. Michael Duncan, Office of Naval Research program manager.

In these tests the researchers used a camera known as the Eyepod, developed by the Space Dynamics Laboratory. This camera, when operated from a height of 5000 feet, can identify objects on the ground from 17-80 cm across, depending on the set up. The camera was able to accurately track objects on the ground and relay high quality images and information to  a communications centre, via a high-speed data-link.

A representation of the new system (Click to Enlarge)

“These tests display how a single imaging sensor can be used to provide imagery of multiple tracked objects,” said Dr. Brian Daniel, a research physicist who worked on the project, “A job typically requiring multiple sensors.”

There are many different potential applications for this research, ranging from the more obvious military uses to high-end private security. With the UK containing more CCTV cameras per person than any other country interest in this technology is likely to be high.

Both military and security surveillance generates a huge quantity of footage, which is time and money consuming for humans to observe in entirety.  It is believed that this new technology could help make surveillance more efficient and to improve the speed with which intelligence reports can be produced.

Autotune the Abstract: Singing in the Brain

Autotune the Abstract: Singing in the Brain

Autotuned sensation Rebecca Black is very excited about this new concept...

As a science communication student I find myself constantly coming across new and different ways people try and get across scientific data and knowledge. It can range from typical things such as news articles and blog posts to knitted representations of science. Whilst some of the crazy ways people try and get out their research may seem misguided, I think this blatant eccentricity should be applauded and encouraged.

It is with this sentiment in mind that I decided for this post to create my own oddball way of presenting research. After much deliberation I decided to autotune the abstract of a science paper. The first step in my attempt to revolutionise science publishing was to pick a lucky research paper to become the launch song. After much scouring of Google Scholar I found the following:

“Singing in the brain: Professional singers, occasional singers, and out-of-tune singers: Gottfried Schlaug; Acoustical Society of America (2009)”

Which, given its subject matter, felt like the perfect research to autotune. Now, unfortunately not every research scientist is a professional sound technician. However, this is something that can be overcome as there are plenty of apps for Iphone and Android that will do all the complicated technical stuff for you! For this first attempt I selected one called “Songify” which is an app produced by the Gregory Brothers, the band who produce the popular online series ‘Autotune the News’.

So without further ado here is the first Autotune the Abstract:

I hope that this practice will become as established in scientific publishing as peer review. I also expect to see the awesomeness of the produced songs incorporated into the impact factors of journals.

Back to the Science Future

Back to the Science Future

Where is my jet pack? Why can’t I live forever yet? And where is my Technological apocalypse?

Friday saw the launch of the new issue of I’Science magazine. It has been entitled the “Great Expectations” issue. It looked at what science has promised us in the past and how close we are to full filling those predictions. You can check it out here.

 To celebrate the release of the issue I am going to share an art project which I happened across a few weeks ago.  It is a set of prophetic illustrations by the French artist Villemard. He produced them in 1910, intending to show what life would be like in the year 2000. Some of his predictions are remarkably accurate and others are just plain odd.



Prediction: Appears to be a primitive version of video calling

Exists in the 21st Century: Yes, and has been around in various forms for decades.


Prediction: Flying cars and flight suits

Exists in the 21st Century: No, although not from lack of trying 


Prediction: Computer aided design

Exists in the 21st Century: Yes, and with the rise of the 3D printer only likely to become more prevalent and publicly available.


Prediction: A Matrix-esque method of learning

Exists in the 21st Century: No, still only in science fiction. Although it could be argued that this is image is an allegory for Wikipedia.


Prediction: A sort of boat, airship crossbreed

Exists in the 21st Century: No, I’m pretty sure these don’t exist! 


Prediction: An automated hairdressers

Exists in the 21st Century: No, the closest we have come to this prediction is the electric razor.


Prediction: Automatic Make-up

Exists in the 21st Century: No, although versions of this can be seen in the Fifth Element and The Simpsons.

8 )

Prediction: Electric roller skates

Exists in the 21st Century: These do exist

Just a little bit of H-T-M-L…..

Just a little bit of H-T-M-L…..

Some things are just more important than work...

Today, Dave, Andrew, Lizzie and myself had a bit of geeky fun after our web design module this week.

The HTML Song

By the Web Design Quartet

Website, there’s no need to shut down 
I said, website, pick your code off the ground
I said, website, ’cause you’re in a new town
There’s no need to be on Wordpress 

Website, there’s something you should know
I said, website, when you’re writing your code
You can work hard, and your content will shine 
It will be like drinking fine wine

It’s fun to code with the H-T-M-L
It’s fun to code with the H-T-M-L

It has everything, that you need to deploy
With it the internet’s your toy

It’s fun to code with the H-T-M-L
It’s fun to code with the H-T-M-L

You can get yourself wrapped, you can have CSS,
Without it the net would be a mess…

Website, are you listening to me?
I said, website, what do you want to be?
I said, website, you can weave up your dreams
But you got to know a few things!

No man does it all by himself.
I said, website, put your code on the shelf,
And just go there, to the H.T.M.L. 
Or just make it from a free shell. 

It’s fun to code with the H-T-M-L
It’s fun to code with the H-T-M-L

This also features on my website development blog in which I am designing a new layout and design for this site.

Some fun with photoshop

ScIPhone: Science in the world of Apps

ScIPhone: Science in the world of Apps

Science is everywhere, nowhere more so that the smartphone arena. But along with the high-tech that makes up the devices, science has also invaded the App market. Whether it be the, pseudoscientific apps which tell you when you are going to die or apps for peer-reviewed research. In this post I will review some of the science Apps that are out there:

NEJM Image Challenge (download here)

It is an interesting App idea, showing pictures medical conditions and then quizzing you on what it could be. It made me feel a little bit like I was House and I can see the app being useful for med students (I was rubbish at it!). However, there was one slight draw back to the app, when you are on the tube you don’t particularly want a big photo of deformed or diseased genitalia appearing on your phone…it tends to make people look at you like you are a crazy person!

Pros: Scientifically accurate and informative

Cons: Very difficult without a trained medical background, costs money, awkward commuting experiences.

Physics Box

This is an App claiming to contain a series of physics games. In one game “Ragdoll Shooter” you fire manikins at a target and the other you fire bombs. The physics claim is only due to them using a physics engine to power the dolls movements. The ragdoll game is quite fun, but there is really no difference between it and the bomb game.

Pros: Quite fun, free

Cons: No actual science, no variation in Game play

Merk – PSE HD (download here)

This is a periodic table app made by Merk pharmaceuticals. It looks very nice and polished and by clicking on the elements it contains lots more information about them.

Pros: Very informative, scientifically accurate.

Cons: Doesn’t do anything extraordinary with the app format

Genetic Code (download here)

Now this may be quite a geeky admission but I think this is a very cool little app. It let’s you enter three DNA bases and it will tell you what it codes for. I imagine this would be pretty useful for researchers.

Pros: Free, science geek novelty factor, could be useful for actual research.

Cons: Little practical use for most people.

So there we have a quick sample I am aware that there are many more science apps out there. If you have any good suggestions for apps to be reviewed drop me a comment below. This potentially may become a regular feature.

Are you tweeting at me?! – Is Twitter a good platform for Scientific Debate?

Are you tweeting at me?! – Is Twitter a good platform for Scientific Debate?

This post was originally written for the Refractive Index blog:

Image: Flickr/Shovelling Son

As well as allowing you to see what celebrities have for breakfast, Twitter has provided a new platform for discussion, debate and disagreement. But does this open up scientific and political processes to the public, or is it nothing more than your typical internet argy-bargy?

It seems that in the extended family of science every day brings a Christmas Day-like feud: squabbling over food or a useless sewing kit from a cracker. The chaotic tangle of utterances that form Twitter can make these arguments hard to follow. Broadly speaking, however, they can be sorted into three distinct categories…

From one authority to another

A frequent occurrence on Twitter is one notable opinion former or expert engaging with another about their views on scientific findings. A recent example of this is the heated online debate between influential writers David Allen Green (lawyer, blogger and journalist) and James Delingpole (Telegraph Columnist). It all began when Allen Green posted:

That sounds like a relatively straightforward question, which one would expect Delingpole to be asked fairly frequently. So you would expect a sincere answer, right? Well, you would be wrong:

You have to question why Delingpole would respond in this manner (especially considering that after their brief spat Delingpole had to ask another user who Allen Green was). This discussion did not overtly open up any debate over scientific evidence, but it did give an insight into the mentality of the two individuals. Allen Green came across as level-headed and considered, while Delingpole seemed brash and confrontational. The exchange unlikely changed anyone’s opinion of the existence of anthropogenic global warming or the effectiveness of homeopathy. But this kind of interaction reveals much to us about the individuals who we trust for information. I would hope this discourse in particular would have led a few of Delingpole’s followers to question his Twitter bio of “I am lovely and right about everything”!

Right of response

Another common use of Twitter is in right of reply. It gives those who feel wronged or want to refute comments in traditional media an immediate platform through which to put forward their case. An example of this is Professor Brian Cox‘s response to an article written in The Times bySarah Vine (Education Minister Michael Gove’s wife).  In her article, Vine argued that Cox andWonders of the Universe sought to ‘sex up’ the scientific content, and that science should be presented by individuals who are “nutty” and “dishevelled”. Cox very quickly commented on the article, saying:

He proceeded to have a bit of a “rant”, criticising her for saying that her comments did not help diversity in science or its popularity. Following on from this, they had, as Cox described it, “a civilised disagreement, if adorned with colourful rhetoric”. This concluded with Cox conceding that it was positive they were both talking about “science and its wider place in culture”, while Vine apologised to Cox and anyone else offended.

This kind of debate is very valuable, not just for the individual afforded the immediate right of response, but also for the audience. Witnessing such discussions brings about greater public interaction and promotes discussion of the topic.

Highlighting unknown issues

Twitter is no doubt a great tool for discovering information that you would otherwise never hear about. It also enables initially tiny issues the opportunity to spread around the world.

The best example of this I have come across is the Ben Goldacre vs. Rentokil debacle that occurred in March 2010. Following the publication of articles based on data that appeared questionable, Goldacre attempted to contact Rentokil regarding how they came up with their figures. However, after not receiving a response he took to Twitter, saying:

Both the official Rentokil account and the manager of Rentokil.com tweeted back (after some prodding). However, after still failing to supply the original emails sent to journalists containing the data, a cascade followed. More and more users took up the cause, including @JackofKent (an alias of David Allen Green) who said: “Now we ALL want to see those emails”. Eventually, Rentokil relented and revealed the ‘bad science’ behind the data.

This kind of interaction demonstrates how big an impact the ‘Twitterverse’ can have on public understanding of science. Ben Goldacre confronting Rentokil in such a public arena forced them to respond and revealed a truth that could have remained buried.

Of course, Twitter is not the ideal medium for hosting a scientific debate: It can be hard to follow, users can delete their tweets and there is a lot of surrounding chatter. But in the internet age, where speed is everything, it is a valuable tool for those wanting to debate and/or observe. And if you disagree, come find me on Twitter and we’ll have a good argument about it!

Life’s a Game: Video Games as a Model for Behaviour

Life’s a Game: Video Games as a Model for Behaviour

Crouching amongst the wreckage of an apartment block I look through a shattered window and see an enemy running and trying to find a place to hide. I pick up my Intervention M-200, take a breath, get his head lined up in the cross hair and pull the trigger.

I have at various points in my life gone through phases of being, what you might call, a ‘gamer’. The scenario above was a frequent one that occurred when I used to play the previous Call of Duty game, Modern Warfare 2. I amassed an ‘on-line kill’ total of around 10,000. My ‘real life kill’ total is thankfully 0. So, it would seem that if you want to find out about me, monitoring my activities in the game would be not the most accurate way of finding information!

However, scientists have been using video games to look at real world psychology. In research published in ‘Cyberpsychology, Behaviour , and Social Networking’ virtual reality (VR) has been used to look at high-level social phenomena. The researchers, from Cardiff, outlined several advantages of using a virtual reality situation including, enhanced control, easy content modification and relative low cost.

Figure 1: A VR re-enactment of the Milford experiment

The study aimed to look at the reduced likelihood of helping bystanders whilst under varying time pressure during a task. This study is similar to the famous ‘Good Samaritan Study’ carried out by Darley and Baston, but places removes the focus on religion and instead looks at the virtual realm. Other studies that have crossed the VR-real life divide includes the infamous Milford experiment.

The participants were placed in the world of the popular game Half Life 2. This allowed the researchers more controll than other VR worlds such as SecondLife or World of Warcraft.

The study had two main parts. In experiment 1 the subjects were asked to complete a simple task (get to the exit of the 3D Maze), whilst (like the Good Samaritan study) the amount of time pressure they are placed under varies (24 participants were given time pressure, with 20 given less time pressure). Whilst completing this task the patients were given several opporunities to help virtual characters that requested assistance, both in the presence of ‘by standers’ and without. 

Figure 2: The VR environment from experiment 2

In the second experiment, they looked more at the ‘bystander effect’  (the theory that when there are more bystanders there is a decreased individual responsibility to help as ‘someone else will do it’). To do this they increased the number of virtual characters in the maze and asked the participant to pretend as if they were real (although, surely a better way to have this effect would have been to have said they were being controlled by real people).

In both situations the maze was made up of 4 different sorts of rooms, an instruction room, 2 obsevation rooms, 14 assistance  rooms and an exit room. In the observation room the participants could see one character helping another by smashing crates behind which they were stuck. In the assistance rooms the participants had the choice of whether they would help in a similar way. In both experiments half of the assistance rooms were populated with bystanders. But, experiment 2 had in each room as 19 opposed to the 4 in expiment 1. The bystanders “displayed various casual movements like turning their heads but ignored requests for assistance”.

The results interestingly were similar to those of their real world equivalents. Experiment 1 showed that increased time pressure decreases the help given to those in need (Figure 3), as in the Good Samaritan Study. Although the presence of bystanders had no significant effect in each time situation.

Figure 3: A graph showing that in a VR world increased time pressure decreases helpfulness

 The lack of bystander effect in this experiment was attributed by the researchers to the VR bystanders not being convincing enough meaning that there was no “diffusion of responsibility ad fear of embarassment”. This was seens as the major drawback of the VR method.

However, in contrast to the findings of experiment 1, experiment 2 did show a significant difference between the bystander and non bystander rooms. This could be attributed to either of the two variables between the experiments, the number of bystanders or the participants being asked to pretend they were real.

The authors of the paper, Kozlov and Johanssen argue that VR is a useful tool in measuring factors that are difficult or impossible to control in the real, such as behaviour when escaping a burning building. However, I can’t help but feel that despite the success of the experiment a real world experiment, money no object, would be better at monitoring psychology as the lack of real world consequences is an issue for VR experimentation.

So, would I be a merciless killing machine if WW3 ever descends? No, I think most likely I would be sat quivering in a corner. But, the research does raise some very interesting questions about virtual behaviour.  

To sum up my closing point here is a funny little video about killing your characters on the Sims, something which as a young teen thought was very funny (dont judge me!):


Kozlov MD, & Johansen MK (2010). Real behavior in virtual environments: psychology experiments in a simple virtual-reality paradigm using video games. Cyberpsychology, behavior and social networking, 13 (6), 711-4 PMID: 21142998

Darley, J., & Batson, C. (1973). “From Jerusalem to Jericho”: A study of situational and dispositional variables in helping behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 27 (1), 100-108 DOI: 10.1037/h0034449

Slater M, Antley A, Davison A, Swapp D, Guger C, Barker C, Pistrang N, & Sanchez-Vives MV (2006). A virtual reprise of the Stanley Milgram obedience experiments. PloS one, 1 PMID: 17183667

The Science Network: Bloopers

The Science Network: Bloopers

Yesterday I posted up mine, Katya and Polly’s science parody of the social network. Today, I give you the treat of our bloopers reel.

Here are the blogs of some of fellow science communication students who featured in the film:

David Roberston – Christy – Aka the crazy boyfriend

George Wigmore – Divian Narendra – Aka freind of twins

Charlie Harvey – Winklevi Number 1

Camila Ruz – Winklevi Number 2

Thea Cunningham – Member of administrative board

Chloe McIvor – Member of administrative board

Anna Perman – Film board clapper operator

James Pope – Man at computer

And also

Lizzie Crouch – Who wasnt in the film but has helped promote it!

Confessions of a bad blogger

Confessions of a bad blogger

Over the past 2 weeks I haven’t been particularly great at getting any proper writing done for this blog. This is due to being involved in a very time consuming project as part of my MSc. But, it is now nearing completion and will very shortly be broadcast to the world. But, in the meantime, here is a little sneaky (not so subtle) clue  as to what it is:


Coming soon....

I will soon get back to my regular writings!