Capuchin monkeys sharingI don’t research on evolution any more (sadly I had to give it up as I didn’t have the time) but I still think it is pretty cool. One of the big questions in evolution is why we humans evolved such large brains. These sorts of evolutionary questions are hard to answer definitively partly because it has already happened and we can’t reurun this experiment, and partly because our brain is ferociously complex, and understanding complex things is just hard.

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I can remember my first day at Surrey very vividly, it rained. In fact it rained everyday for 6 ½ weeks. At the time I wasn’t really sure where I wanted to be after the 4 years, but somewhere dry was at the top of my list. As it turns out the University of Surrey was actually a great place to be, not only did I enjoy my time whilst there, the contacts and collaborations of the Physics department saw me not only working at CERN for a year as part of my MPhys research, but also got me in contact with many other institutions where further positions were possible. So, after getting my MPhys degree, I found myself in the Nuclear Science Laboratory at the University of Notre Dame in the US, where after my PhD and Postdoc, I am now transitioning into a research faculty position. The University itself is a unique place, an American University founded by a French priest, with the nickname “The Fighting Irish”. However, the lab finds itself at the forefront of low-energy nuclear astrophysics research, both experimental and theoretical.

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D hamsterBy one increasingly common measure of how good you are as a scientist, I am twice as good a scientist as Tisha the (now sadly late) hamster. Beating a dead hamster in a field that apparently requires high levels of intelligence is quite unsatisfying. The measure is the average number of references people have made to my scientific papers. I have published about 100 scientific papers, and Google Scholar reckons that they are cited about 21 times each on average. Tisha’s paper has been cited 12 times. Incidentally, the picture above is not of Tisha but just one of a random hamster I got from Wikimedia.

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KevinbacongfdlI am quite proud of my Erdös number of 4. An Erdös number of 4 means via a trail of 4 papers I can reach the prolific Hungarian-born mathematician Paul Erdös. Erdös published papers with an astonishing 511 other mathematicians. The path of papers is here, but basically I have written a paper with a good friend Jon Doye (Erdös number of 3), who has written a paper with a guy called Richard Berry (Erdös number of 2), who wrote a paper with a P. Salaman, who published a paper with Paul Erdös himself and so has an Erdös number of 1.

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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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[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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ZebrasToday is the centenary of Alan Turing‘s birth. He was born in London on 23rd June 1912. If you look at the Google homepage, the doodle is a Turing machine. Turing was one of the most brilliant people the Britain produced in the last century. He is one of the fathers of the computer you are using right now,  hence the Turing machine doodle by Google. He also made a huge contribution to the Allies winning the Second World War.

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16
Jun
2012

Phytoplankton Bloom off IrelandSome satellite images of Earth from space are not only beautiful, but make you think. They give a new perspective on the planet whose surface we spend our lives scurrying around on. Earth is very big of course. Its circumference is more than 10 million times the height of a human being.

The image to the left shows phytoplankton blooms that together are longer than England. The phytoplankton blooms are the blue-green streaks west and south of Ireland in the image. They are composed of enormous numbers of microscopic photosynthesising organisms. The blue green colour comes from the chlorophyll they contain and use for photosynthesis.

As you can see, phytoplankton can form in enormous quantities, which is why a significant amount of the oxygen you are breathing now is made by photosynthesis by these organisms. I guess we owe them one for that. And if we were looking nr from above but at sea level it would be impossible to judge the scale of the bloom. It is only now we can see from space that we can easily appreciate the sheer size of these blooms.

This picture was taken by NASA’s Aqua satellite. There is a gallery of images taken by this satellite in pages at Wired magazine. The first one shows the plume of smoke coming off the volcano Mount Etna on Sicily. I find it just astonishing, the detail is stunning and the plume is as long as the island itself. It does give you a good idea of the power behind a volcanic eruption.

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ALICE TPC 1Of course I cannot predict the future and so have no more idea what the future of physics will be than you do. But I have been reading some interesting blog posts and newspaper articles. I will give links and some comments, and you can make up your mind about the future of physics.

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This blog has been going for a year and a bit now. Above is a word cloud made from my posts over this time. This used Wordle – which is dead easy to use. I guess the big ‘science’ is not a suprise, but it also appears that I have a droplet obsession. Who knew.

If you don’t know how word clouds work, they are very simple. The size of the word is proportional to the number of times it appears in whatever text was used to fed in – in this case my posts. So as my posts use the word science a lot of times, it is shown very large in the plot.

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