This is a quote, of disputed origin. A very of-the-moment example of scientific theft is the Higgs boson. This was proposed by Peter Higgs and others who stole the idea of a symmetry-breaking mode and Higgs boson from another field of physics. This kind of theft is common and 100% OK – providing that you credit the people whose idea you stole. Ideas are as free as air, and are what economists call a public good. This means that you can’t stop people from using, or being inspired by an idea, and that everyone can benefit from using an idea without it being used up.

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IcosahedronLast week I was at a conference on mathematical biology in Durham. I will get to the biology in a bit, but first the mathematics, in particular geometry. You can make precisely five (not four or six) different regular solid shapes using only regular polygons, and where at every corner of the shape the same number of these polygons meet. The cube is probably the most familiar one.  This is made from six squares (a square is a four-sided polygon), and at each corner, three of these squares meet. There are exactly four other shapes, one of which is the icosahedron shown to the left. The icosahedron is made of triangles (three-sided polygons), not squares, and here at each corner five of these triangles meet. The icosahedron has 20 of these triangles.

I find it somehow continually surprising, that there are precisely five and only five such shapes possible. It just seems a bit weird to me. Even more weirdly, we have known that you can only make five of these solid shapes since the time of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato (born about 427 BC). These five shapes are the most symmetric, and so many people think, the most beautiful. They are called the Five Platonic Solids, because they are mentioned in works by Plato.

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From Weds to Friday last week I visited Ghana to do some volunteering in the Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospital in Kumasi, Ghana.  I taught some medical statistics as well as grant writing skills to the attendees of the 2nd Annual HIV, Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C Conference, which was being held in Kumasi.

The aim of the conference was to improve the knowledge of the clinical and scientific staff about the diagnosis and treatment of co-infection by HIV and the liver disease hepatitis. A specific purpose of this Royal Society funded meeting was to build capacity for local research programmes to determine the prevalence of  liver disease, and of risk factors, such as which HIV treatments improve or worsen the hepatitis, and by how much.

At the same time as the conference, a group from the universities of Liverpool, Middlesbrough and University College London, led by Prof Anna Maria Geretti, were making a study of liver disease in coinfected patients at the hospital, doing liver fibrosis scans and virological blood tests. I was involved in the taking of data from the ultrasound fibrosis scans, and sorting blood samples in the lab. Over 150 patients visited during the week, and 50 health workers from across west Africa came together for the conference.

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In case any readers in Guildford are interested, you might like to know that Guildford Café Scientifique long ago serendipitously scheduled an event this evening on the LHC. The speaker is Prof Nick Evans, from our Sepnet partner institution the University of Southampton.

More details are available on the Café Scientifique web site.

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[Ha'penny bridge]
It definitely felt like Saturday as I waited for the bus from the hotel at 7 this morning. The roads were much emptier, and the bus timetable at the stop told me that the most frequent service didn’t actually start until 8 at the weekend. Still, I got into town quickly, and failed to get a coffee in the completely deserted docklands area, or indeed in the convention centre, where they had removed the coffee stand in the foyer.

Still, my first session was the intriguingly-titled “What Should European’s Eat?” and the answer might have emphatically said “not-coffee” so perhaps I had a lucky escape. The question was explored by nutritional, demographic and statistical experts from Greece, the UK and Finland, each giving a kind of history of the national diet and the role of scientific studies of eating habits and how they relate to setting government nutrition recommendations.

Greece, with its historic diet consisting of a lot of olive oil, cereals, fruit and vegetables, with some fish and meat, with red meat eaten quite rarely, had been discovered to coincide with good health (particularly cardiovascular) and longevity in a study called the Seven Countries Study, which looked at a large cohort over many years. This is reflected in the advice in the Greek Food Pyramid, which shows food at the bottom that should be eaten every day, moving up to food that should be eaten more rarely at the top. This diet used to be almost universal (so I learnt from the speaker) in many mediterranean areas in the past, but over the last 50 years or so has eroded so that just under half of inhabitants could be said to follow this traditional diet. Co-incidently, or not, you may have recently played with the "Where are you on the global fat scale?" tool on the BBC News and noticed that Greece now has a greater rate of obesity than the UK.
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[ESOF slide on sea ice]

Hello, keen followers of my exploits at the EuroScience Open Forum in Dublin. I mentioned in my Day 1 post that I thought the name of the event was a bit strange to me. Well, today, they have had their "policy" day, in which a large number of the events did not concern themselves with science but concerned themselves with things that concern themselves about science – so a kind of metascience day. This meant quite a lot of discussion, and hence more of a forum, I suppose. Since I’ve actually gone to (and blogged about) quite a few metascience events already in past days, I tried to also go to some of the few more science-oriented events today. Here’s a quick summary of what I’ve seen:

First up, a session on science research in the Islamic world. This was interesting; It was presented by a couple of journalists, one of whom went to Indonesia and the other to Egypt to learn what they could about the life of scientists there, of science funding, of science careers and education. Clearly, the amount of R&D funding in many of the countries is low by European standards, but one fact seemed quite amazing: The entire output of scientific papers from the OIC countries is about the same as one Ivy League University. The reasons are manifold and understandable. The speakers had some suggestions as to how it might change, and some grounds (e.g. democratic revolutions, though the one in Egypt has not had much effect on science yet) to expect that it might. If it does, it will hopefully improve quality of life in those countries and enrich the world’s intellectual and cultural community.

Next, a keynote address by Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science. She spoke extremely well, as you might expect from a European Commissioner. She thinks much more like a scientist than politicians often do, and she led a discussion on how to create an environment in which science really works well for society in a very holistic way, with room for “curiosity-driven” and “challenge-driven” research and a balance between competition to drive innovation and collaboration to get a sensible use of scientific cooperation. All very sensible stuff. She also talked about future EU funding of science, and the upcoming Horizon2020 funding round in which more funding would be available for research via the EU than ever before. One of the speakers on her panel, Subra Suresh, Director of the US National Science Foundation, recounted the anecdote in which Gladstone asked Faraday why the exchequer should finance his studies into electricity, with Faraday responding "One day sir, you may tax it" – always a good story to tell when politicians ask why they should fund science.
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[ESOF Opening Shot]

I skilfully navigated the bus network this morning to get in to the conference venue with time to spare for my first event. It was organised by the UK charity Sense About Science and was organised as a kind of career development event for young scientists. Peer review (examination of your work by others in the field) is part of the process of getting your work published, and the speakers, some of whom are experienced journal editors had some useful advice, such as to write careful cover letters to those journals that require them, to get work published while still a PhD student and to try to ensure recognition for peer reviewing you do while a junior researcher (say when a senior colleague asks for you input on reviewing – make sure the journal editor knows this has taken place). Though the session was aimed more towards helping steer young researchers through the peer review process, there was some mention made of relatively new journals, such as PLoS One, which publishes all submitted articles that are free of error, and lets bulk of the peer review happen afterwards, such as happens in the physics arXiv website.

I asked about the campaign led by Sir Tim Gowers, the Cambridge Mathematician, to boycott acting as peer reviewers for journals who then sell the published research articles that have been reviewed for free by scientists back to the Universities at quite a high expense. The panel said that the boycott might well have some impact, but that in their areas (one was from a medical journal) it has not had much effect yet. They stressed that they felt peer review and proper journals with impact factors were currently too important for the boycott to have a great effect. Time will tell, I suppose.
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[ESOF Opening Shot]

I’m in Dublin as a delegate at something called the Euroscience Open Forum. To me, it is a science festival, but in typical European style, it has a rather strange name. It consists of a series of talks, discussions, debates, workshops, plays, poetry readings and much else besides, covering all areas of science, from my own area, physics, to subjects I know next to nothing about (most of medicine, for example). This means I have the chance to join in with my favourite areas, where I might be able to jump up and join in the debates from a position of knowledge, as well as to learn some new things.

Things kick off properly tomorrow, with today having featured registration, a reception late in the afternoon, and a welcome session. This meant I had time to wander round Dublin, somewhere I’ve never been before, and wander around looking at the city, and stopping in at least one of Dublin’s famous pubs for a pint of Guinness.

The festival is taking place mostly within an enormous convention centre, newly built in the Dockland part of Dublin. Mostly, when I go to science conferences, they take place Universities, or small self-contained hotels with conference facilities. The scale of this is something else, and so is the organisation, with many convention centre staff around to shepherd you / check that you are allowed to be there / stop you walking places you aren’t. It certainly gives it a less friendly feeling than most conferences I go to, but I suppose the constituency is much larger and diverse here.
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FPbeachTsienThe image to the left is a San Diego (in southern California, USA) beach scene painted using differently coloured bacteria, by Nathan Shaner and Paul Steinbach. A protein that fluoresces green was discovered in jellyfish. If you insert the gene for this protein into bacteria, then they fluoresce green. Then you can paint in green with these bacteria, using a plate covered by a layer of food that the bacteria will grow on. This green fluorescent protein has now been engineered to produce blue, yellow, etc versions so you can make and then paint with bacteria with all these colours.

Now, this is very pretty, but you may be thinking it is about as much use as these officials UEFA have put behind the goal lines in Euro2012 matches. This is not so. What reminded me of this painting is a meeting I had with my biologist collaborators at King’s College London.

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