Letters from Europe

This weekend’s Guardian has a quite wonderful feature comprised of letters to Britain from European writers about the decision to be made in the upcoming referendum. It offers a fresh and little-heard perspective on a debate that has become worn out and embittered over the past few weeks. I urge you to read it.

What you will read is that every contributor – from France to Bulgaria – has a vision of a vibrant but flawed European community that is desperate for Britain to remain part of the family. I was surprised how often the war was mentioned – in relation to the terrors and the bloodshed that the EU has helped to heal, but also in gratitude that Britain was prepared to stand firm in the face of Nazi aggression (see especially Jonas Jonasson’s contribution).

Ireland’s Anne Enright, married to a Brit, and with two daughters of complex loyalties (given that the family relocated from Britain to Ireland) gives a lovely pen portrait of the UK that resonates also with this emigrant:

“I like Britain very much. I mean, I like whatever Britain is – a shifting thing, a landscape, a language, a library full of astonishing books, a mosaic of peoples stalled in one migration or another, from the raw Saxon faces you see in East Anglia, to the sari shops of Bradford, to the eyes of my two children, who came from God knows where.

They like the trees, by the way. Also, and in this order: curry, cousins, Yorkshire pudding, “the way that everything is better funded”, the BBC, Bristol, sarcasm, the pub, AFC Wimbledon, Edgar Wright, Topshop and “how the politicians seem very polite but are really furious”. So now you know.”

And then there is Yanis Varoufakis from Greece who pleads with Britain to stay despite the EU’s poor handling of the crisis in his home country.

“Rather than escaping the EU, Brexit will keep you tied to a Europe that is nastier, sadder and increasingly dangerous to itself, to you, indeed to the rest of the planet.”

Amid all the acrimony of the present debate these missives from across Europe made me think that more than ever, it is time for Britain to roll up its sleeves and plough once again into the theatre of conflict (not so bloody this time around, thankfully); to stand beside our European friends and family in defending democracy – yes, this will require some reform of EU institutions – and to help point the way to a brighter future for the continent.

For some of my own musings on the scientific side of the EU referendum, try these two pieces in the Guardian.


Posted in International | 2 Comments

How to look at Art?

I was sneered at on Twitter yesterday for sneering at people taking pictures of the Impressionist paintings on display at the Musée D’Orsay in Paris.


Fair enough perhaps. I had adopted an exaggerated version of the pontifical tone that comes so readily when composing tweets and not everyone saw the funny side. But behind my mock outrage was a genuine note of annoyance.

I don’t have a strong objection to people taking pictures. Indeed I took a few myself. But it was odd to observe those who only took pictures. Those who paused in front of a work with their smartphone or tablet or – more rarely – an actual camera just long enough (quite a while in some cases) to focus and compose the shot before moving on.

Thankfully these were a minority. But then there is the crowd that does not know how to turn off the flash on their phone, or the red light that some cameras use to aid focusing or the fake shutter noises that digital devices insist on retaining as a default setting. As a result, even if you can mentally block out the phones constantly being thrust into you peripheral field of vision, the viewing experience is degraded by random illumination and manufactured mechanical noise. It is a marked change from a couple of years ago.

The people vs art

Our guide book had advised us that photography was strictly forbidden at the Musée D’Orsay in order to prevent bottlenecks forming in what is clearly a popular attraction – we had queued for 40 minutes to get in. This seemed like a sensible restriction, one that serves a greater good.

But clearly the museum has abandoned this policy, ceding defeat to the inexorable rise of digital technology. This technology is undoubtedly a boon in many other areas of life but I wish the museum managers had found a better accommodation, perhaps allowing photography during a happy-snappy hour each day. Because much as I enjoyed my visit yesterday, the abiding memory is one of digital interference.


Posted in Science & Art | 1 Comment

ICYMI No. 5: Asking universities to be open about research assessment

I first wrote about the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) when it was launched in May 2013. DORA is a simple statement asking the different players in the business of academic research to free themselves from the damaging effects of relying on journal impact factors when assessing researchers and their research. It suggests straightforward ways in which they might do so.

DORA Article

But in the three years since then, a dispiritingly small number of universities in the UK (and elsewhere) have signed up. In a piece in this week’s Research Fortnight I invite the remainder to show their support – or to demonstrate how their assessment practices take them beyond DORA.

I don’t think for a moment that most universities aren’t interested in doing a good job of evaluating their researchers or the work that they do. My piece isn’t about apportioning blame. But impact factors remain a deeply embedded problem in academic culture and this anniversary is an opportunity for our universities to show how they are tackling it.


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Transitory Mercury

I wasn’t sure I was going to get to see today’s celestial encounter. The forecast was for blanket cover by early afternoon and the blue skies of the morning had largely filled with cloud by lunchtime, when the transit was due to start – 12:12 pm to be precise — this stuff runs like clockwork.

Transit of Mercury

From the bus-stop I scanned the heavens with an anxious eye. There were still breaks in the clouds but a large mass of grey was moving in from the South. I willed the bus to arrive. Come. On.

The first one to do so was the 162 which dropped me at the bottom of the hill, a seven minute schlepp to our house. I climbed up the road, eyes up, watching as a large blue clearing drifted slowly towards the sun.

And then I was home, bag dropped, jacket off, back doors flung open. I lifted my 5-inch reflector telescope – primed for action yesterday – placed it gently on the patio and swung the barrel round and up, the motor whining at the effort. Aiming at the sun is easy because it’s really rather obvious, but tricky too because you have to squint right at it to make sure the telescope is precisely trained. By the time I was ready to peer down the eyepiece, switching the motor to fine control for the final phase of the hunt, splotches of green were dancing in my eyes.

But then there it was. The bright orb of the sun slid into view, already in sharp focus, and there, unmistakably (it hadn’t been there yesterday), was the tiny black disk of Mercury, to the right of a large sunspot (which had). With trembling hands – that schlepp up the hill had taken its toll – I grabbed my iPhone and snapped repeatedly. This is best picture I got in that first foray.

Transit of Mercury

After a few more tries and experiments with different eyepiece lenses I got the picture below. Mercury’s disk is clearly visible as it transits across the blazing sun. The attenuation of the sun’s brightness by the filter, necessary to protect my telescope and my eyes, cools its appearance to a smooth, almost unblemished globe. But what a monster it is beside the tiny planet. Kudos to little Mercury for not getting swallowed up.

Transit of Mercury

I know enough of such encounters not to spend them just taking photographs – it was the same with the transit of Venus a couple of years ago. I like to take the time to just look, to try to form a mental imprint – not least because the image in the viewfinder is sharper than any of my photographs. I want to remember this moment. So, in the breaks between the clouds over the course of about an hour, Mercury and I became acquainted. I had seen it before of course, a bright speck low on the horizon at sunset but this was different, more intimate. Against the glaring background of the sun, tiny Mercury revealed its form.

I was glad I had disregarded the weather forecast and taken my chances. Mercury will come round again in front of the sun in 2019 but that will be a November crossing, as will the following two in 2032 and 2039, with a much greater likelihood of cloudy skies. Today was perhaps my last, best hope. It is good from time to time, amid the distractions of work and city life, to meet with forces and phenomena that are far greater than any human enterprise, but on which we are utterly dependent.


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ICYMI No. 4: Books to read before university

This week’s Times Higher Education has a nice cover feature listing books recommended by various scholars to students preparing for university. More particularly, as the author of the piece, Matthew Reisz, explained to me in an email, “We are asking some leading academics to recommend a single book which they believe those towards the end of their high school career should read in order to ease their transition into university life.”

Review of Matthew Cobb's bookRecommended book. (Photo posted on Twitter by Matthew Cobb)

I’m not sure what definition of “leading academic” he was working to but my recommendation, made very much with life science students in mind (though it has broader appeal), was Matthew Cobb’s Life’s Greatest Secret, published in 2015. I had reviewed the book at length in the Guardian last year but a short summary of my reasons for choosing it is given in the picture above.

Anyway, the whole list is as interesting and varied at the scholars doing the choosing. There were a few titles that have long been on my to-read list – Maxwell’s On Poetry and Tartt’s The Secret History to name but two.

The piece is rounded off with a commentary by headteacher Geoff Barton who presumably knows a thing or two about the bookish interests of 18 year olds these days. He is highly skeptical of Tim Gowers’ choice of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (a title I suspect I may never tackle) but then undoes himself somewhat by recommending “anything by Malcolm Gladwell”, whose popular approach – or should that be populist – been widely criticised.

But perhaps we scholar’s shouldn’t be so picky. As I said to Reisz in the course of our interview, I was always glad to see students reading any kind of book in these internet-infested times. Even the flaws make for a good starting point for the next phase of the conversation.


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ICYMI No. 3: Academic publishing on the radio

This is rather self-serving, even by my standards, but I made a plan with these “In Case You Missed It” posts and I’m sticking to it. I have been on the radio a couple of times in the past month talking about academic publishing. It’s not a topic that often gets aired so I  was pleased to see two radio buses come along in quick succession, so to speak.

A couple of weeks ago I was involved, along with many other contributors, on Alok Jha’s two-part documentary for Radio 4 on rigour and integrity within science – which is impacted strongly by the pressure to publish that is associated with career advancement in academia. Saving Science from the Scientists may have a provocative title but it’s a thoughtful and well-researched exploration of an important topic. Well worth a listen, I’d say.

Free Thinking
Anne McElvoy (left) discusses suits with Shahidha Bari and James Sherwood, while I keep my mouth shut. 

And then last week I was on the late-night BBC Radio 3 programme Free Thinking, hosted by Anne McElvoy. It’s a weekday magazine show that tackles all sorts of ideas. On this particular occasion there were segments on the history of the suit, educational testing and Neil LaBute’s new play, Reasons to be Happy – and, in the last five minutes, a discussion with me on the implications of recent moves to accelerate the publication of research results, which I’d written about for the Guardian. If you want to hear what I had to say, scrub forward to about 40 minutes in…

Of course, having worked my way from Radio 4 to Radio 3, I’m now waiting for the call from Chris Evans

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Review: Heart of the Original

Steve Aylett’s short book on originality, creativity and individuality may conform externally to the rectilinear format of most other books but is otherwise highly elliptical. I found it maddening.

Heart of the Original
Heart of the Original – Alan Moore loved it. 

It has chapters, paragraphs, and sentences – just like other books – but somehow those sentences don’t stack up into a shape that is easy to get hold of. I can’t even put my finger on it. Aylett’s commitment to originality seems total and sincere – he writes with the surety of conviction. Heart of the Original contains plenty of insightful gleams and canny turns of phrase, but they were overlaid with too much opacity for my liking. It is unfair to quote mine but I want you to share in my frustration. Try this for size (from page 87):

“It’s a cliché that with our future ahead of us and our past behind, a manoeuvre to the sides, above or below might expose epic sweeps of terrain to explore, each sideline having different properties and climates. There is one which is made entirely of interwoven targets, one which is a giddy chaos of pop-rocks, one in which everything in one direction is a euphemism for everything in the other, one which is all soppiness and jumper cables, one which is sacred and unbearable, one across which visitors are ricocheted a universe-depth twice per standard second, another where the coincidences are piling up, and yet another which is all and everywhere solid unliveable gemstone without even light to clarify the explanation which stripes it as through a stick of holiday rock.”

I know all the words but I could not uncoil the author’s meaning in these sentences. I kept hoping to arrive at a conclusion but never did. Perhaps that’s the wrong quest – Aylett seems more interested in attitude than instruction. Overall I did get a dim sense of his intention: that true originality is difficult and rare, and often unwelcome in a world dulled and comforted by familiarity; and that this in turn propagates a loss of nerve in many pretend creators. Aylett has a point and often delivers it with some wit. To redress he balance of the excerpt above, try this one (page 120):

“Biological death – the only kind worth bothering with – is met with fighting stances among those who want to dodge it, an urge rarely motivated by a desire for wisdom. […] It’s claimed that advances in science mean the first human to live to 500 years has already been born – if so, he or she was born into wealth and will hopefully use the extended lifespan to mature beyond being a privileged dick. Doris Lessing remarked that human beings do not live long enough to come to their senses.”

But such moments were not enough to gratify this reader. I wanted to like Heart of the Original because it was recommended in the course of a thoroughly entertaining discussion on the BookShambles podcast by Stewart Lee and Robin Ince, both comedians whose work I have greatly enjoyed. Maybe I recognised myself too often in Aylett’s sideswipes at the unimaginative and I’m just a sore loser?

I was certainly discombobulated by Aylett’s book but at least have the presence of mind to know that’s not necessarily a bad thing. So why don’t you try it for yourself, and then write in to tell me how wrong and unoriginal I am?


P.S. The weekly Bookshambles podcast, in which Robin Ince and Josie Long chat to an invited guest (mostly) about their shared love of books, is great fun. This past season I particularly enjoyed the episodes with Sara Pascoe and Natalie Haynes.

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Review: The Many Worlds of Albie Bright

After publishing my round-up of the books I’d read in 2015, the author Christopher Edge got in touch via twitter to offer a review copy of his new book, The Many Worlds of Albie Bright.

Cover of The Many Worlds of Albie Bright

It’s a short novel for children which has an ambitious amount of science threaded into the plot. At the beginning of the story young Albie has just lost his physicist mum to cancer. By way of consolation Albie’s physicist father – a somewhat distant figure because of his globe-trotting as a TV scientist –  tells his son about the theory of parallel universes and suggests that in one of these his mum might still be alive and well. With an improbable mix of his mum’s laptop, a cardboard box and a radioactive banana, Albie sets off on a trip through the multiverse, acquiring a smattering of science and a some valuable life-lessons along the way.

Edge shows plenty of invention in telling his tale. I can tell you that I enjoyed it but I don’t consider myself a reliable judge of children’s fiction. So I sent the book to my nephew and niece, who are about the right age to be in the target audience. Here are their rather lovely reviews.

First up, Fergal, (age 11):

I enjoyed the book a lot. I liked that it gave you some interesting information about parallel universes. I liked that you can’t relate it to any other books (that I have read) because it is very different – such as the theme and the characters. And that because it is in a completely different universe all the characters are so similar, such as Albie as a boy and Alba. I liked how that the writer described them as the pretty much the same but they have a different background – I mean there are things that are the same such as the dad being famous and the mum dying at a certain age or way.

I liked the theme because I know there are a lot of sci-fi books but not many of them include actual science and things that scientists are investigating such as parallel universes where all possibilities are happening so in one you are killing nigel garage and in the other Germany may have won world war two, so we could be speaking German.

The final thing that I want to say is that the writer have really gotten into your heart when the mum dies because he wants you to be sharing Albie’s sadness.

And now his sister, Niamh (age 13):

I thought that The Many Worlds of Albie Bright was a great book with plenty of emotion and a wonderful storyline that had me hooked from the beginning.

It reminded me a bit of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime because of its oddly charming writing style of the main character speaking directly to the reader. The narrative itself was interesting and extremely enjoyable to read and had a lovely friendly tone to it throughout the story.

One of my favourite parts of this book is Albie explaining the science and theory of his experiment. It was a beautiful mix of “that sounds like it makes sense” and “but it would never work and makes absolutely no sense”. The writer explained it in such a way that you completely went along with it no matter how ridiculous it sounded.

The story was amazing and made me laugh, smile and cry. It was truly wonderful and I would definitely read again. The only thing that I slightly raised an eyebrow at was the staggering amount of convenience and ex machina but I suppose that it’s all part of the story and the unbelievably believableness about it.


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ICYMI No. 2: Time for positive action on negative results

Today I had a short opinion piece in Chemical and Engineering News on publishing negative results, a topic that I covered about this time last year in the Guardian on the occasion of the publication my lab’s first paper on an experiment that didn’t work out.

Basically, I think it’s a good idea. The practice will help to correct the positive bias in the research literature, and to map out territory that has been fruitlessly explored (so avoiding unnecessary re-investigation). Traditionally it’s been hard to do because journals don’t like negative results, but with the advent of megajournals and preprint servers, there are now practical outlets for these valuable if unexciting observations.

Please have a read – and tell your friends.

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Meeting David Attenborough at the Royal Institution

On Wednesday of this past week I found myself in the presence of royalty and felt quite giddy. It happened at a Royal Institution shindig to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the first televised broadcast of their world-famous Christmas lectures.

As you can see in the photograph below the Duke of York was in the room but that’s not the type of royalty I get excited about. Look closer and you should also be able to pick out Mr David Attenborough. He has no PhD or professorship to his name but can surely be regarded as an emperor of science for all his many contributions in bringing the wonders of natural history into our living rooms. He is rightly regarded in the UK as a national treasure. Even American presidents seek out his presence.


Attenborough at the RI


As controller of BBC2 in the 1960s Attenborough had been responsible for inaugurating the regular broadcast of the RI Christmas lectures (though the celebration last Wednesday was to mark the recent re-discovery that the 1936 lectures by Geoffrey Ingram Taylor on Ships had been broadcast live by the fledgling BBC as long ago as 1936). In 1973 Attenborough himself had the honour of presenting the lectures on The Language of Animals.


Attenborough at the RI (triptych)


Attenborough will turn 90 later this year. He is careful in his movements but his mind is as sharp as ever and he spoke with great animation and enthusiasm about his experience of giving the lectures – and their continued importance in stimulating young minds.

In the press of the drinks reception that followed the celebration I managed to buttonhole him and have a few words. I was under instructions from my daughter to snag an autograph but I didn’t have the nerve for that – or to submit the venerable broadcaster to the indignity of a ‘selfie’. What I did do was tell him that, much as I had loved his natural history programming over the years, what I really appreciated was the fact that while in charge of BBC2 he had commissioned a number of landmark documentary series, notably The Ascent of Man and Civilisation (my reviews are here and here).

Though I was aware of both series as a child, at the time – the late 60s and early 70s – they were a bit beyond me. But I have caught up with them in the past few years and was delighted to find how well they have stood the test of time – and to have the chance to thank Attenborough for having brought them into the world. He was kind and gracious, and remembered Jacob Bronowski, who presented The Ascent of Man, with particular fondness. I told him how I admired Bronowski’s ability (and that of Kenneth Clark in Civilisation) to speak at length to the camera with a passion and a clarity that was captivating. Attenborough concurred and pointed out that the BBC had been fortunate to be able give such talented presenters the space to perform – each series consists of 13 hour-long episodes. We lamented the pressures that curtail factual programming series in the modern era.

And then, mindful that there must be many others in the crowd at the reception who would want to speak to the great man, I thanked him again and took my leave – my heart a little gladder.


P.S. (Mon 8th March): How could I have forgotten to mention this? One of the particular delights of Wednesday evening was that in a video segment used to show off the work of the RI, there was included a short animated film about crystallography that I had been involved in – as script editor and narrator. After a lifetime of watching David Attenborough’s marvellous programmes on the TV, it was nice that he was presented with one of mine*.



*I say “mine” but of course many other people were involved too!

Posted in Science & Media | 3 Comments

Combining preprints and post-publication peer review: a new (big) deal?

Stimulated, I believe, by Ron Vale’s call to preprints last year, various luminaries from the world of science and science publishing will be gathering in Maryland at the headquarters of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) later this month to discuss the way forward.

The meeting, called Accelerating Science and Publication in Biology – ASAPbio for short – aims to focus discussion on:

preprints and the role that they might play in catalysing scientific discovery, facilitating career advancement, and improving the culture of communication within the biology community.

Admirably the organisers are hoping to get beyond just talking about the well-known problems of scientific publishing:

The meeting will identify actionable next steps that emerge around areas of consensus, and the organizing committee and other interested participants will be involved in subsequent follow-through.

So it’s a serious affair. And the work has already started. In advance of the meeting, Mike Eisen and Leslie Vosshall have uploaded a commentary proposing a mechanism for coupling preprints and post-publication peer review. It’s short and to-the-point and well worth reading. The central feature of their proposed system is that authors would post preprints that could then be peer-reviewed along two different tracks:

Track 1: Organized review in which groups, such as scientific societies or self-assembling sets of researchers, representing fields or areas of interest arrange for the review of papers they believe to be relevant to researchers in their field. They could either directly solicit reviewers or invite members of their group to submit reviews, and would publish the results of these reviews in a standardized format. These groups would be evaluated by a coalition of funding agencies, libraries, universities, and other parties according to a set of commonly agreed upon standards, akin to the screening that is done for traditional journals at PubMed.

Track 2: Individually submitted reviews from anyone who has read the paper. These reviews would use the same format as organized reviews, and would become part of the permanent record of the paper. Ideally, we want everyone who reads a paper carefully to offer their view of its validity, audience, and impact. To ensure that the system is not corrupted, individually submitted reviews would be screened for appropriateness, conflicts of interest, and other problems, and there would be mechanisms to adjudicate complaints about submitted reviews.

Authors would have the ability at any time to respond to reviews and to submit revised versions of their manuscript.

This is an interesting and provocative piece of work but I have some questions that I would like to lob into the discussion.

  1. Why would scientific societies, many of which have healthy income streams from journal publishing, contribute to a system that would lead to their demise if adopted widely? Could one create incentives for them to participate or should they be sacrificed for the greater good of research?
  2. Who forms the “coalition” mentioned in the proposal that has the task of approving review groups? This coalition needs to be authoritative for the system to work, but universities are every bit as invested in the current journal system (and JIFs) as researchers. And funding agencies are reluctant to dictate to researchers the routes through which they may publish.
  3. This new scheme does not guarantee that peer review will occur. Under the present system all competent researchers can get their work reviewed – and be reasonably assured  that it will be published. What would tempt them away from journals if the risks of not being reviewed were perceived as tangible?

Journals such as Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics and F1000Research are using more formal types of post-publication peer review – indeed Vitek Tracz and Rebecca Lawrence of F1000 outline its principal features in another ASAPbio commentary (also worth a read). What they offer is a guarantee that review will be conducted and that is something that I think matters to most researchers. I wonder are these new journal formats a more attractive stepping stone away from the present JIF-infected dispensation?

I would be interested to hear other’s responses to both the commentaries and my questions above. It’s great to see meetings like this taking place and I very much hope that a set of actionable points will emerge.

The meeting will be streamed online to enable as many people as possible to follow proceedings, though I hope some of the attendees will take it upon themselves to write pithy summaries.

Related posts:

Pre-prints: Just do it? (Reciprocal Space)

Peer review, pre-prints and the speed of science (The Guardian)

Posted in Academic publishing, Open Access | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Open access and public engagement: I need your help

Dear Reader,

I would appreciate your help.

I am working on a chapter for a book on openness within science (to be published by Manchester University Press). The book is part of the ‘Making Science Public’ program run by Prof Brigitte Nerlich at Nottingham University and aims to take a critical look at the dilemmas of open science. In my chapter I want to explore how open access publishing has impacted the relationship between the public (in its various forms and groupings) and researchers.

As someone who has supported open access from within the life sciences, I have often expressed the hope that increasing the volume of the research literature accessible to the public might stimulate a public-side demand for more information from researchers, or clearer reports (e.g. lay summaries) – or might in other ways change the dynamic of interaction with the ‘experts’. I’m interested in the question of whether open access has empowered members of the public (broadly defined) in any significant way.

This is likely to be a minority interest among the general public but I imagine that there are special interest groups – patient organisations and campaign groups among them – that have a strong interest in the research literature.

I would very much like to find specific examples. I have made a number of directed enquiries but then thought I would use my blog to widen the net, particularly since the deadline is – what’s the word? – impending.

So, does anyone out there know of cases where open access to the research literature has stimulated contact with the research community? I would be particularly interested in instances where the contact has altered the course of research or clinical practice or public policy.

I would be grateful for all comments and suggestions. Please feel free to comment below or email me via the link on the left hand side of my university web page.

Many thanks,



Posted in Academic publishing, Science | 10 Comments