Monthly Archives: December 2011

Beti Williams MBE

I was delighted to hear this morning that Beti Williams had been made a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) for services to women in sciences, engineering and technology in the 2012 New Year Honours List (full open data list of recipients here).

Beti has worked tirelessly on promoting computer science and IT careers in Wales, primarily as Director of ITWales for 15 years and a founder of BCS Women in Wales. Prior to her retirement, Beti was instrumental in obtaining EU funding for two projects worth £20m: Software Alliance Wales (creation of a pan-Wales knowledge network for software developers) and Technocamps (which aims to promote and support the study of computer science in schools and colleges). In 1996, Beti was a finalist in the Welsh Woman of the Year and in 2006 was the winner of the Best Woman in Technology (Public Sector/Academia category) in the Blackberry Woman of the Year Awards.

Thoroughly deserved. Congratulations Beti!

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In 1956, 5MB was big enough for anyone

In September 1956, IBM launched the 305 RAMAC (Random Access Method of Accounting and Control), the first commercial computer that used a moving-head hard disk drive (as opposed to sequential access magnetic tape storage).

The RAMAC’s disk storage unit, the IBM 350, weighed over a ton, had to be moved around with forklifts, and was delivered via large cargo airplanes (as above). It stored approximately 5MB of data: five million 8-bit characters on fifty 24-inch-diameter disks, a form of drum memory. It consisted of two independent access arms that moved up and down to select a disk, and in and out to select a recording track, all under servo control. The average time to locate a single record was 600ms (c.f. the seek times for modern hard disk drives of 5-10ms). IBM touted the system as being able to store the equivalent of 64,000 punched cards.

Over a thousand IBM 305 RAMAC systems were built, which were leased for $3,200 per month, equivalent to a purchase price of about $160,000 in 1957 dollars (approximately $1.3m today). The 305 was one of the last vacuum tube computers that IBM built, with production ending in 1961.

A representative for Hitachi Global Storage Technologies (which acquired IBM’s hard disk drive business in 2002), stated in a Wall Street Journal interview in 2006 that the storage capacity of the drive could have been increased beyond 5MB, but IBM’s marketing department was against a larger capacity drive because they were unsure how to sell a product with more storage…(oh, how times have changed).

(HT to Retronaut for this post)

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All we want for Christmas…is our MPs to back libel reform in the Queen’s Speech

Scientists, journal editors, community organisations and writers are asking everyone concerned about the impact of the libel laws on open discussions to let their MP know they want to see libel reform in the Queen’s Speech in May 2012.

This is something that I have written about a number of times: all of the undersigned have faced or been threatened with libel actions. Please help by contacting your MP (see TheyWorkForYou), signing the petition and spreading the libel reform message.

Dear Friends,

We are writing as people who have battled libel threats and actions to ask for your help to make sure reform of the laws gets into next year’s Queen’s Speech, which sets the legislative agenda for 2012.

People are still being threatened by a law that allows the rich and powerful to bully critics and shut down public debate. Libel reform needs urgent action. The campaign and all its supporters have worked hard to persuade the Ministry of Justice to draw up an effective Defamation Bill, but if it is not in the Queen’s Speech in the spring, then libel reform will be delayed for at least another year, which will be a victory for those who want to silence honest criticism. We can’t bear to let this opportunity slip away.

We know we will have to battle against those who want to delay or derail libel reform, and the best way to get our message across is to lobby MPs for support. Please help us by clicking here to send an email to your MP so they know that all we want for Christmas is our MPs to back the inclusion of libel reform in the Queen’s Speech.


Simon Singh
Dr Ben Goldacre
Dr Peter Wilmshurst
Hardeep Singh
Dr Fiona Godlee, Editor in Chief, BMJ
Dr Philip Campbell, Editor in Chief, Nature
Justine Roberts, Founder and CEO, Mumsnet
Richard Dunstan, Social Policy Officer, Citizens Advice
David Osler, journalist
Professor David Colquhoun
Professor Francisco Lacerda
Rhys Morgan, blogger
John Gray, blogger

Keep libel laws out of science

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Expert Panel report on the National Curriculum review

Yesterday, the Expert Panel for the National Curriculum review released its report: “The Framework for the National Curriculum“, alongside a written ministerial statement by Michael Gove.

I have a huge interest in the outcomes of the National Curriculum review in England, primarily through my work with Computing At School (CAS), but also its impact on education policy in Wales. With the BCS Academy of Computing (the learned society dedicated to advancing computing as an academic discipline), CAS submitted a response to the call for evidence in April 2011; one of the main aims was to highlight to the Department for Education that computer science is a rigorous academic subject distinct from digital literacy and for it to be considered separately from ICT in the National Curriculum review. This letter to Michael Gove in June 2011 from the BCS and high-profile tech industry leaders further reinforced the strategic national importance of computer science to industry and the UK economy.

Here are two key snippets from the Expert Panel’s report (page 24):

Despite their importance in balanced educational provision, we are not entirely persuaded of claims that design and technology, information and communication technology and citizenship have sufficient disciplinary coherence to be stated as discrete and separate National Curriculum ‘subjects’.

We recommend that…Information and communication technology is reclassified as part of the Basic Curriculum and requirements should be established so that it permeates all National Curriculum subjects. We have also noted the arguments, made by some respondents to the Call for Evidence, that there should be more widespread teaching of computer science in secondary schools. We recommend that this proposition is properly considered.

This has come a week after a rather damning Ofsted report on ICT in schools, which says that only one third of secondary schools achieve ‘Good’ or better at teaching ICT. There is clearly still a lot of work to be done to ensure that we are developing the appropriate level of computational skills in schools (irrespective of what the subject is called), but this statement from the Expert Panel is certainly a positive step (although “We recommend that this proposition is properly considered.” is a bizarre turn of phrase, with little commitment). I am also concerned that embeddding ICT across the curriculum has been attempted before, with little success.

Let’s see what the Royal Society’s report says in January.

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EPSRC Fellowships announced

Last week, the EPSRC announced the 43 successful researchers who have been awarded fellowships totalling £36M to “help develop their potential as the next generation of world-leading scientists and engineers.

After a recent reorganisation of their fellowship programmes, the EPSRC now provide a number of personal fellowships to early career and well-established researchers to carry out ambitious programmes of research, usually over a five-year period. These fellowships fund the recipient and enable them to build a research team around a specific topic area; they are prestigious and highly coveted by those within the EPSRC‘s remit.

However, as discussed on the Dundee Physics blog, the EPSRC‘s press release appeared to focus more on the funding infrastructure and process (perhaps indirectly supporting Shaping Capability), rather than highlighting the excellence of the researchers (who, seemingly as an afterthought, were named at the end of the press release). This is in stark contrast to the recent announcement of the Royal Society’s 2011 University Research Fellowships.

All of the following information has been taken from Grants on the Web (with thanks to David McGloin for first collating it):

Career Acceleration Fellowships

EPSRC Ref. PI Organisation Title Value (£)
EP/J002062/1 Ross, Dr J University of Cambridge Links between Algebraic Geometry and Complex Analysis 693,701
EP/J002658/1 Dembele, Dr L University of Warwick Explicit methods for algebraic automorphic forms 589,359
EP/J001317/1 Jeffrey, Dr M University of Bath When Worlds Collide: the asymptotics of interacting systems 349,723
EP/J001686/1 Majumdar, Dr A University of Oxford The Mathematics of Liquid Crystals – Analysis, Computation and Applications 501,887
EP/J00149X/1 Haynes, Dr A University of Bristol Circle rotations and their generalisations in Diophantine approximation 590,969
EP/J002437/1 House, Dr TA University of Warwick Disease transmission and control in complex, structured populations 632,534
EP/J001872/1 O’Hara, Dr C University of Strathclyde Chiral Concepts in s-Block Metal Amide Chemistry 907,993
EP/J002194/1 Hofferberth, Dr S University of Nottingham Few-Photon Nonlinear Optics in Ultracold Rydberg Gases 1,142,329
EP/J002208/1 Kerridge, Dr A University College London Theoretical studies of actinide complexation with macrocyclic ligands: identifying synthetic targets and real-world applications 594,433
EP/J002615/1 McLain, Dr S University of Oxford Structural studies of atomic interactions in membranes: bridging the gap between physics and membrane biology 1,345,845
EP/J001821/1 Leek, Dr PJ University of Oxford Strong coupling and coherence in hybrid solid state quantum systems 892,726
EP/J002275/1 Hayward, Dr T J University of Sheffield MAGNETISM YOU CAN RELY ON: Understanding Stochastic Behaviour in Nanomagnetic Devices. 698,105
EP/J002542/1 Galan, Dr M University of Bristol Novel ionic-based tools for glycoscience 920,060
EP/J002550/1 Kar, Dr S Queen’s University of Belfast Next generation laser-driven neutron sources for ultrafast studies 617,279
EP/J002518/1 Graham, Dr DM The University of Manchester Terahertz electron paramagnetic resonance: A window on biological exploitation of quantum mechanics 755,989
EP/J002577/1 Eden, Dr SP Open University Electron attachment to biomolecular clusters: probing the role of multiple scattering in radio-sensitivity. 618,329
EP/J002348/1 Zair, Dr A Imperial College London CADAM: Capturing Attosecond Dynamics in Atoms and Molecules 697,864
EP/J001538/1 Bull, Dr JA Imperial College London Novel strategies to access chiral heterocycles as potential lead compounds in drug discovery 723,115
EP/J002305/1 Barnes, Dr P R F Imperial College London Charge Carrier Dynamics and Molecular Wiring in Hybrid Optoelectronic Devices 722,816
EP/J002534/1 Greaves, Dr S J University of Bristol Dynamics of Gas-Liquid Reactions; The Pseudo-Surface Approach 1,059,463
EP/J002259/1 Hubert, Dr C Newcastle University DEEPBIOENGINEERING 985,943
EP/J002186/1 NGODUY, Dr D University of Leeds Advanced traffic flow theory and control for heterogeneous intelligent traffic networks 480,598
EP/J002380/1 Eames, Dr M University of Exeter The development of an early stage thermal model to protect against uncertainty and morbidity in buildings under predicted climate change 506,058
EP/J002356/1 Dean, Dr P University of Leeds Coherent detection and manipulation of terahertz quantum cascade lasers 695,589
EP/J002224/1 Brotherston, Dr J Queen Mary, University of London Logical Foundations of Resource 465,503
EP/J002607/1 Sadrzadeh, Dr M University of Oxford Foundational Structures for Compositional Meaning 529,968
EP/J002526/1 Yamagishi, Dr J University of Edinburgh Deep architectures for statistical speech synthesis 741,163
EP/J001953/1 Mather, Dr M University of Nottingham Self-assembling Liposome Nano-transducers 733,385
EP/J002402/1 Ebbens, Dr S University of Sheffield Using Self-Assembling Swimming Devices to Control Motion at the Nanoscale 896,741
EP/J002100/1 Reddyhoff, Dr T Imperial College London Triboemission and Boundary Film Formation 719,805

Leadership Fellowships

EPSRC Ref. PI Organisation Title Value (£)
EP/J003948/1 Gelfreykh, Dr V University of Warwick Unstable Dynamics in Hamiltonian Systems 821,038
EP/J004022/1 Luczak, Professor MJ University of Sheffield Stochastic models for epidemics in large populations: limiting and long-term behaviour 952,949
EP/J003840/1 Adjiman, Dr CS Imperial College London The molecular frontier: extending the boundaries of process design 1,278,003
EP/J004081/1 Reynolds, Dr P University of Sheffield Advanced Technologies for Mitigation of Human-Induced Vibration 1,056,999
EP/J003867/1 Alavi, Professor A University of Cambridge Quantum Monte Carlo meets Quantum Chemistry 968,120
EP/J003875/1 Bongs, Professor K University of Birmingham Dipolar Quantum Magnets 1,325,121
EP/J003832/1 McKenna, Professor P University of Strathclyde Multi-PetaWatt Laser-Plasma Interactions: A New Frontier in Physics 1,330,510
EP/J003859/1 Bresme, Dr F Imperial College London Novel thermo-molecular effects at nanoscale interfaces: from nanoparticles to molecular motors 1,181,480
EP/J003999/1 Gregoryanz, Dr E University of Edinburgh Synthesis and Studies of Novel States of Matter at Extreme Conditions 1,103,039
EP/J004049/1 Colton, Dr S Imperial College London Computational Creativity Theory 970,170
EP/J004057/1 Cohen, Professor N University of Leeds WHole Animal Modelling (WHAM): Toward the integrated understanding of sensory motor control in C. elegans 1,185,968
EP/J004111/1 Krasnogor, Professor N University of Nottingham Towards a Universal Biological-Cell Operating System (AUdACiOuS) 1,026,408
EP/J003964/1 Rosser, Dr SJ University of Glasgow A synthetic biology approach to optimisation of microbial fuel cell electricity production 960,594
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sudo pass law

From reddit:

In the UK, the monarchy is the root account, but it is disabled. Government is performed via sudo.

(N.B. with our constitutional monarchy and bicameral legislature, this is not quite true)

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Research on STEM careers in Wales

Chwarae Teg, in partnership with the Science Council, are undertaking comparative research in the career paths of men and women across Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) industries in Wales. The survey is intended to be completed by men and women who either live or studied in Wales and hold a post-16 STEM qualification; for most people this will mean education and training undertaken after having completed your O-Levels/GCSEs.

Targeted subjects include: Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics, Computer Science, Engineering, Biology, Geography, Geology, Forensic Science, Psychology, Sports Science and Archaeological Sciences.

The research will explore why women and girls do not progress into STEM careers in Wales; it forms part of the Agile Nation project run by Chwarae Teg, funded by the European Social Fund and Welsh Government.

Please complete the survey (also available in Welsh) and pass along to your colleagues and networks in Wales. The deadline for the survey is Tuesday 20th December 2011.

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Creating simple software systems

There are two ways of constructing a software design: One way is to make it so simple that there are obviously no deficiencies, and the other way is to make it so complicated that there are no obvious deficiencies. The first method is far more difficult.

Tony Hoare

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Technology and innovation in Wales

In October, Iain Gray (CEO of the Technology Strategy Board), ahead of a visit to Wales, compiled a list of 50 high-technology and innovation-led businesses and organisation across North and South Wales; I made a Storify of the tweets before I found his blog post.

The Welsh Government has identified six nine priority sectors in which to support industry-led investment as part of Economic Renewal: A New Direction:

  • Creative Industries
  • Information, Communication and Technology (ICT)
  • Energy and Environment
  • Advanced Materials and Manufacturing
  • Life Sciences
  • Financial and Professional Services
  • Food and Farming
  • Construction
  • Tourism

The list correlates to the first five of these priority sectors — it is in no particular order, and there are, of course, many businesses not included. Nevertheless, it is interesting to see the diverse range of innovation and high-value R&D in Wales across these five sectors, highlighting that there is a strong underpinning research base from Welsh universities, along with investment from both government and industry (but clearly more is needed). I have particular interest in the composition of this list due to the importance of the ICT sector (with its associated key priorities): I sit on the Welsh Government’s Strategy Group for the Digital Wales Research Hub, which aims to develop organisational and funding strategies to complement the RCUK Digital Economy Programme. The Hub will bring together industry, universities and funding bodies to facilitate the delivery of open, innovative and collaborative R&D related to the Digital Economy; creation of the Hub is a cornerstone of the Welsh Government’s Delivering a Digital Wales agenda.

More information about the Digital Wales Research Hub to follow in early 2012!

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Google Doodle honours Robert Noyce, “Mayor of Silicon Valley”

This week’s Google doodle* pays tribute to Intel co-founder Robert Noyce, described as the “Mayor of Silicon Valley”, in what would have been his 84th birthday (he died in 1990 age of 62).

Noyce founded Intel with Gordon Moore in 1968, after having co-invented the first integrated circuit (along with Jack Kilby at Texas Instruments) whilst at Fairchild Semiconductor in 1959. At Intel, he oversaw Ted Hoff‘s invention of the microprocessor and is credited with giving the high-tech Californian region its name.

* FYI, earlier this year, Google obtained a patent for their Google doodles!

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Feynman, Bethe and the beauty of mathematics

To those who do not know mathematics, it is difficult to get across a real feeling as to the beauty, the deepest beauty, of nature…If you want to learn about nature, to appreciate nature, it is necessary to understand the language that she speaks in.

The Character of Physical Law (1965)
Richard Feynman

This term I have been teaching a new first year undergraduate module, Mathematics for Computing, in which I have been trying to impart a little bit of love for mathematics. While we have covered a number of underpinning topics relevant to computer science, such as propositional logic, set theory and number theory, I have also tried to show that there are a multitude of clever little tricks that can make arithmetic and performing seemingly complex calculations that little bit easier. And in doing so, I was reminded of the mathematical prowess of Richard Feynman as well as Hans Bethe, Nobel laureate in physics and Feynman’s mentor during the Manhattan Project. Bethe is one of the few scientists who can make the claim of publishing a major paper in his field every decade of his career, which spanned nearly 70 years; Freeman Dyson called Bethe the “supreme problem solver of the 20th century.

An example of Bethe’s mastery of mental arithmetic was the squares-near-fifty trick (taken from Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman by James Gleick):

When Bethe and Feynman went up against each other in games of calculating, they competed with special pleasure. Onlookers were often surprised, and not because the upstart Feynman bested his famous elder. On the contrary, more often the slow-speaking Bethe tended to outcompute Feynman. Early in the project they were working together on a formula that required the square of 48. Feymnan reached across his desk for the Marchant mechanical calculator.

Bethe said, “It’s twenty-three hundred.”

Feynman started to punch the keys anyway. “You want to know exactly?” Bethe said. “It’s twenty-three hundred and four. Don’t you know how to take squares of numbers near fifty?” He explained the trick. Fifty squared is 2,500 (no thinking needed). For numbers a few more or less than 50, the approximate square is that many hundreds more or less than 2,500. Because 48 is 2 less than 50, 48 squared is 200 less than 2,500 — thus 2,300. To make a final tiny correction to the precise answer, just take that difference again — 2 — and square it. Thus 2,304.

Bethe’s trick is based on the following identity:

(50 + x)^2 = 2500 + 100x + x^2

For a more intuitive geometric proof of this formula, imagine a square patch of land that measures 50 + x on each side:


Its area is (50 + x)^2, which is the value we are looking for. As you can see in the diagram above, this area consists of a 50 by 50 square (which contributes the 2500 to the formula), two rectangles of dimensions 50 by x (each contributing an area of 50x, for a combined total of 100x), and finally the small x by x square, which gives an area of x^2, the final term in Bethe’s formula.

While Feynman had internalised an apparatus for handling far more difficult calculations (for which he became famous for at Los Alamos, such as summing the terms of infinite series or inventing a new and general method for solving third-order differential equations), Bethe impressed him with a mastery of mental arithmetic that showed he had built up a huge repertoire of these easy tricks, enough to cover the whole landscape of small numbers. Bethe knew instinctively that the difference between two successive squares is always an odd number (the sum of the numbers being squared); that fact, and the fact that 50 is half of 100, gave rise to the squares-near-fifty trick.

Unfortunately, the skill of mental arithmetic that did so much to establish Bethe’s (as well as Feynman’s) legend was doomed to a quick obsolescence in the age of machine computation — it appears to be a dead skill today.

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The Queen of Mathematics

Mathematics is the queen of sciences and number theory is the queen of mathematics. She often condescends to render service to astronomy and other natural sciences, but in all relations she is entitled to the first rank.

Carl Friedrich Gauss (1777-1855)
Quoted in Gauss zum Gedächtniss (1856) by Wolfgang Sartorius von Waltershausen

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