Monthly Archives: May 2011

British Science Association General Committee Elections 2011/2012

BSA logo

Election of representatives to the British Science Association General Committee 2011/2012 is now open.

The General Committee is the principal strategic advisory body of the British Science Association and consists of members of Council, as well as elected members from the three Constituencies: Sections, Members and Branches. Members of the General Committee normally serve a three year term, and can stand for re-election once.

There are ten candidates for the four (available) elected places on the General Committee for 2011/2012, with myself being one of them! I have been nominated by the South Wales Branch and this is my candidate statement:

Dr Tom Crick is a Lecturer in Computer Science at UWIC in Cardiff, having previously completed his PhD and post-doctoral research at the University of Bath. He is the leader in Wales of Computing at School (CAS), a membership association supported by BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, to promote and support the teaching of computer science and other computing disciplines in UK schools. He sits on the National Assembly for Wales Cross-Party Group on Science and Technology and has been involved with the British Science Association (through the South Wales Branch) and wider science communication and public engagement activities for a number of years. He is one of the ten 2011 British Science Association Media Fellows, working with BBC Wales.

I feel that my experience of a wide range of science communication and public engagement activities, from national events to local school initiatives, gives me a strong foundation in which to support the aims and objectives of the British Science Association. Furthermore, I have experience of sitting on national committees: I currently sit on BCS Council, the strategic advisory body of BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, as well as the Education Committee of the BCS Academy of Computing, the learned society dedicated to advancing computing as an academic discipline. I am confident that these current roles would support any General Committee role. I am passionate about promoting science communication and engagement on computing and technology themes, so I am hopeful that the Association could further support these aims; perhaps by creating a dedicated Computing Sciences (or similarly named) Section to better engage with the area and interested parties.

If you are a member of the British Science Association, please vote for me online (or by post)! All votes must be received no later than Friday 24th June 2011.


The most remarkable formula in all of mathematics

I have been re-reading Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman by James Gleick (hence the recent Feynman-themed post), which reminded me of a very special formula in mathematics; one that Feynman himself described as follows in his famous Feynman Lectures on Physics:

In our study of oscillating systems, we shall have occasion to use one of the most remarkable, almost astounding, formulas in all of mathematics. From the physicists’ point of view, we could bring forth this formula in two minutes or so and be done with it. But science is as much for intellectual enjoyment as for practical utility, so instead of just spending a few minutes, we shall surround the jewel by its proper setting in the grand design of that branch of mathematics called elementary algebra.

This remarkable formula? Euler’s Identity:

e^{i\pi} + 1 = 0

In analytical mathematics, Euler’s identity (named for the pioneering Swiss-German mathematician, Leonhard Euler), is an equality renowned for its mathematical beauty, linking five fundamental mathematical constants:

  • The number 0, the additive identity.
  • The number 1, the multiplicative identity.
  • The number \pi, which is ubiquitous in trigonometry, the geometry of Euclidean space, and analytical mathematics (\pi = 3.14159265…)
  • The number e, the base of natural logarithms, which occurs widely in mathematical and scientific analysis (e = 2.718281828…); both \pi and e are transcendental numbers.
  • The number i, the imaginary unit of the complex numbers, whose study leads to deeper insights into many areas of algebra and calculus.

The identity is a special case of Euler’s Formula from complex analysis, which states that:

e^{ix} = \cos x + i \sin x

for any real number x. The derivation to the identity follows, as \cos \pi = -1 and \sin \pi = 0.

For me, Euler’s Identity reinforces the underlying beauty and interconnectedness of mathematics, pulling together three seemingly disparate fields into one simple formula; it certainly deserves being known as “the most remarkable formula in all of mathematics“.

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I’m a Scientist, Get me out of here!

I'm A Scientist logo

On Friday I was very pleased to hear that I’d been accepted for I’m a Scientist, Get me out of here!, running over two weeks from Monday 13th to Friday 24th June 2011. It’s an award-winning science enrichment and engagement activity, funded by a Society Award from the Wellcome Trust. It is hugely popular: in the June 2010 event over 100 scientists and 5,000 students from 150 schools took part, with 7,500 questions asked and 68,000 visits to the site!

In essence, IASGMOOH is an X Factor-style competition for scientists, where students are the judges (watch the 60 second intro). For two weeks, students read about the scientists’ work, ask them questions and engage in live text chats with them. The students vote for the scientist they want to win the £500 prize (to be used for science communication activities). The event is split into zones, and in each zone there are five scientists and around 400 students. At the start of the second week, the scientists with the fewest votes are evicted until only one is left to be crowned the winner in each zone.

The primary objective of this science dialogue event is to change students’ attitudes to science, and make them feel it is something they can relate to and informally discuss by talking to real scientists. The event is supported by carefully developed and tested teaching resources that develop students’ skills and deepen their understanding. I am very much looking forward to the live chats to do some rapid science communication.

You can follow the event on Twitter (@imascientist) and keep an eye on tweets marked #ias2011; I will be in the Chromium Zone and will be blogging throughout the event (in fact, it might take over my life for the two weeks). My primary aim is to use my research to get the students thinking about Computing and its application across the sciences, as well as why it is important to develop skills such as computational thinking, abstraction, reasoning and problem-solving.

And I unashamedly say: please vote for me!


Science and the Assembly 2011

I have been invited to speak at Science and the Assembly 2011, an annual event organised by the Royal Society of Chemistry, designed to develop closer links between the scientific community in Wales, the National Assembly for Wales and the Welsh Assembly Government.

I’m one of six invited speakers from across academia and industry, as well as the WAG Chief Scientific Advisor, Professor John Harries, on themes heralded by the International Year of Chemistry. However, I will be subverting the theme somewhat by discussing the importance of Computing to Wales, highlighting how it underpins modern scientific research and where it sits within the STEM agenda:

Computing: Enabling a Digital Wales

The strategic importance of the provision of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects, as well as their contribution to the Welsh and wider UK economy has been frequently discussed, but there appears to be a fundamental misunderstanding with where Computing and related disciplines sit within the STEM portfolio. It should be regarded as the quintessential STEM subject, involving scientific enquiry, engineering design and mathematical foundations, as well as embodying deeper computational thinking, problem-solving and analytical skills.

In December 2010, the Welsh Assembly Government outlined a framework for Delivering a Digital Wales, a wide-ranging strategy to reflect the importance digital technologies now play in our lives, touching upon virtually every strand of public and private sector activity. Hence, being able to innovate with technology will be a crucial part of the future economic strength of Wales. And therein lies the importance and relevance of Computing education: it is imperative that there is a clear strategy for Computing in Wales that distinguishes it from “digital literacy”, recognising it as a core discipline that underpins modern scientific research.

This is a well-timed event considering the recent Assembly elections, so I hope there is a strong turnout from both newly elected Assembly Members and policymakers.

The seventh annual Science and the Assembly takes place in Cardiff Bay on Tuesday 24th May 2011 at the Pierhead Building and the Senedd; registration is online.

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“That’s what she said”

Turning seemingly innocuous comments into sexual innuendo by adding the words “That’s what she said” (TWSS) has become a (chiefly American, occasionally annoying) cultural phenomenon. Unfortunately, identifying humour and double entendre through software is hard. This is interesting to me from a research perspective: I am interested in the wider area of knowledge representation and reasoning, particularly declarative problem-solving. It is hard to perform sentiment analysis and infer meaning from human language statements that can have non-standard structures, particularly if you want to do it with large-scale datasets (think Twitter, et al.).

For many years, artificial intelligence researchers have been trying to solve the natural language processing (NLP) problem. This field bridges computer science and linguistics and aims to build software that can analyse, understand and generate languages that humans use naturally, so that eventually you will be able to address your computer as though you were addressing another person. Natural language understanding is sometimes referred to as an AI-complete problem, because it requires extensive world knowledge and the ability to manipulate it; to call a problem AI-complete reflects an attitude that it cannot be solved by a simple algorithm. In NLP, the meaning of a sentence will often vary based on the context in which it is presented (since text can contain information at many different granularities), and this is something that is difficult to represent in software. When you add humour, puns and double entendre, this can get substantially harder.

But maybe the first steps have been made: a recent paper (That’s What She Said: Double Entendre Identification) by Chloe Kiddon and Yuriy Brun, computer scientists from the University of Washington, presents a software program capable of understanding a specific type of humour, the TWSS problem: “Double Entendre via Noun Transfer” or DEviaNT for short.

Kiddon and Brun’s approach consists of three functions that are used to score words based on a number of sample sentences sourced from either an erotic corpus or from the Brown corpus, the standard used in this field. And this was the part that caught my geek attention: the noun sexiness function, NS(n), rates nouns based on their relative frequencies and whether they are euphemisms for sexually explicit nouns. For example, words with high NS(n) scores include “rod” and “meat”. The two other functions are the adjective sexiness function, AS(a), which detects adjectives such as “hot” and “wet”, and the verb sexiness function, VS(v).

These three functions are used to score sentences for noun euphemisms i.e. does a test sentence include a word likely to be used in an erotic sentence. Other scoring elements include the presence of adjectives and verbs combinations more likely to be used in erotic literature. Finally, they use information such as the number of punctuation and non-punctuation items in sentences. These scores were used to train the WEKA toolkit, an open source collection of machine learning algorithms for data mining tasks. Using this test set they were able to show a high level (around 72% accuracy) of identification of sentences which were suitable for TWSS-style jokes, while keeping false negatives to a minimum: the authors flagging that making the joke when the sentence is not appropriate is much worse than not making the joke when it is appropriate.

While this is preliminary work (the authors will be presenting it at the 49th Annual Meeting of the Association for Computation Linguistics: Human Language Technologies in June), the technique of metaphorical mapping may be generalised to identify other types of double entendres and other forms of humour.

Or maybe it’s just far too big to get a grip on…

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A chemical-free world

In celebration of 2011 being the International Year of Chemistry, why not get a home chemistry set for your kids:

Chemistry kit

Photo courtesy of JAYFK

No, your eyes do not deceive you…it is a chemistry kit with no chemicals. Looking at the product description, we can see some of the 60+ fun activities possible with this kit include growing crystals, chromatography, growing plants and slime and gook. All without chemicals.

Of course this kit contains chemicals! Unless it enables you to create matter from nothing, I’m pretty sure that you will at the very least need that nasty chemical water (H2O for you budding chemists out there) for some of the fun activities listed above. I would also be shocked if you could do chromatography without using any chemicals.

So when did the word “chemical” get such negative connotations? OK, so in this case it may be an advertising phrase indicating that the product is free of industrial or synthetic chemicals, but it reinforces the idea that all chemical are evil. And that labelling a chemistry set (or any product) as “chemical-free” is a good thing.

I therefore fully support Deborah Blum‘s resolution on her Speakeasy Science blog to rid the world of the ridiculous and misleading term “chemical-free”. She succinctly describes the problem:

Folks, let’s be literal for a moment. If we don’t use chemicals on our gardens, we won’t even be able to use H20 on the plants. And if we restrict ourselves to only chemical-free food we’ll be, um, dead. Starvation tends to do that, you know.

A chemical-free world is one in which we wouldn’t exist. This pseudo-protective chemical-free propaganda does nothing to make us safer; instead, it further muddies our understanding of the legitimate risks out there. The best scientific response to this increasing nonsense is from the Royal Society of Chemistry, which last year offered £1 million to the first person to create a genuinely chemical-free product.

Unsurprisingly, they are still waiting for someone to claim the prize.

(a big thanks to the JAYFK for the initial heads-up to this product)

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