Category Archives: Science communication

Open letter to the AAAS on reinforcing damaging stereotypes in STEM

Along with c.600 other scientists, I have recently signed and supported another open letter to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the world’s largest general scientific society. While the AAAS seeks to “advance science, engineering, and innovation throughout the world for the benefit of all people”, four recent incidents [1,2,3,4] have drawn signficant attention to editorial failings that reinforce damaging stereotypes for underrepresented groups in STEM, particularly on their Science Careers column:

We are writing about four recent AAAS publications and communications in the past 12 months that reinforce damaging stereotypes about underrepresented groups in STEM fields. It is particularly concerning that two of these four pieces originated from Science Careers, which purports to be “the leading resource for job listings and career advice in science, technology, engineering and mathematics”, given that these incidents risk deterring people from underrepresented groups from pursuing careers in STEM, and (in the fourth case) appear to mock criticisms from the scientific community in response to these communications.

First reported on the Retraction Watch blog and then more widely on Buzzfeed, our letter asks the AAAS to “work more diligently” to avoid “harmful stereotypes” when publishing content about minorities, and recommends that its editorial staff undergo diversity training.

Please read the full letter and share widely.

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Toys for girls and boys

This week an image has been doing the rounds on Twitter, showing a letter to parents printed on the back of a pamphlet from a LEGO set:


Originally posted on reddit, it unsurprisingly went viral but with many questioning its authenticity. However, it has been confirmed as genuine by LEGO UK:

The text is from 1974 and was a part of a pamphlet showing a variety of Lego doll house products targeted girls aged 4 and up. It remains relevant to this day — our focus has always been, and remains to bring creative play experiences to all children in the world…ultimately enabling children to build and create whatever they can imagine.

Don’t forget, you can use this helpful guide to check to see if a toy is for boys or girls.

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2008 Royal Institution Christmas Lectures: Professor Chris Bishop

The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, started by Michael Faraday in 1825, are one of the highlights of science communication specifically aimed at young people to be broadcast on national television. I distinctly remember watching the Christmas Lectures when I was young, in particular Richard Dawkins in 1991 and Frank Close in 1993. The 2013 Christmas Lectures — Life Fantastic — have Alison Woollard from the University of Oxford exploring the frontiers of developmental biology and uncovering the remarkable transformation of a single cell into a complex organism.

Unsurprisingly, I am always reminded of the single instance in 2008 of a computer scientist presenting the Christmas Lectures: Hi-tech Trek with Chris Bishop, a Distinguished Scientist at Microsoft Research Cambridge, where he leads the Machine Learning and Perception group:

Christopher Bishop

From the origin of the microprocessor to the development of the internet, the field of computer science has literally changed the way in which we live our lives.

But the world of computers is vast and complicated, ranging from the architecture of microchips to use of quantum mechanics for data encryption – it’s not always easy to know what exactly is going on inside the box. So how do computers work? How is so much information stored within a single hard-drive and how do computers communicate with each other over the internet?

Across five lectures, Professor Chris Bishop sheds light on some of these questions by tracing the evolution of the modern computer. Along the way he explores the many technologies which have developed as a result of the computer revolution; including the interconnected world of the internet, the use of software to control hardware and the challenges involved in creating artificial intelligence.

You can watch all five episodes of the 2008 Lectures on the excellent Ri Channel (as well as extra resources on the microsite):

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BBC Four: The Joy of Logic

Catch The Joy of Logic by Dave Cliff on iPlayer before it disappears! Programme blurb:

A sharp, witty, mind-expanding and exuberant foray into the world of logic with computer scientist Professor Dave Cliff. Following in the footsteps of the award-winning ‘The Joy of Stats’ and its sequel, ‘Tails You Win — The Science of Chance’, this film takes viewers on a new rollercoaster ride through philosophy, maths, science and technology — all of which, under the bonnet, run on logic.

Wielding the same wit and wisdom, animation and gleeful nerdery as its predecessors, this film journeys from Aristotle to Alice in Wonderland, sci-fi to supercomputers to tell the fascinating story of the quest for certainty and the fundamentals of sound reasoning itself.

Dave Cliff, professor of computer science and engineering at Bristol University, is no abstract theoretician. 15 years ago he combined logic and a bit of maths to write one of the first computer programs to outperform humans at trading stocks and shares. Giving away the software for free, he says, was not his most logical move…

With the help of 25 seven-year-olds, Professor Cliff creates, for the first time ever, a computer made entirely of children, running on nothing but logic. We also meet the world’s brainiest whizz-kids, competing at the International Olympiad of Informatics in Brisbane, Australia.

‘The Joy of Logic’ also hails logic’s all-time heroes: George Boole who moved logic beyond philosophy to mathematics; Bertrand Russell, who took 360+ pages but heroically proved that 1 + 1 = 2; Kurt Godel, who brought logic to its knees by demonstrating that some truths are unprovable; and Alan Turing, who, with what Cliff calls an ‘almost exquisite paradox’, was inspired by this huge setback to logic to conceive the computer.

Ultimately, the film asks, can humans really stay ahead? Could today’s generation of logical computing machines be smarter than us? What does that tell us about our own brains, and just how ‘logical’ we really are…?

(you might also like this In Our Time programme on the history of logic from 2010 or this BBC Science Café programme on logic I was a guest on in 2011)

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Winchester Science Festival 2013

Yesterday I spoke at the 2013 Winchester Science Festival, a fantastic weekend of science communication and science education with some excellent speakers. My talk was entitled “Computing: The Science of Nearly Everything” (slides), which attempted to reset the perception of computer science: highlighting the importance of computer science education (in particular the wide utility of programming) and how modern science and engineering increasingly leverages computation.

Précis: We have seen how computational techniques have moved on from assisting scientists in doing science, to transforming both how science is done and what science is done (also see this Royal Society report). Thus, perhaps we should value the increasingly cross-cutting and interdisciplinary field of computer science, as well as computational literacy from school through to postgraduate research skills training.

Dr Tom Crick opening slide


(you can also see other photos from the 2013 Winchester Science Festival, including me doing silly gestures)

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We’ve sold Computer Science, now we have to sell what it means to be a Computer Scientist…

Last week was an exceptional week for computer science education in the UK: Google donating 15,000 Raspberry Pis to UK schoolchildren, Microsoft calling for computer science to be taught from primary school, the Department for Education including computer science in the EBacc as the “fourth science” and UCAS 2013 entry statistics showing the highest increase in total applications for Computer Sciences (up 12.3%). This follows on from the launch of the CAS Network of Computer Science Teaching Excellence in September, the publication in November of the draft ICT Programme of Study for England and the announcement in January of a review of the ICT curriculum in Wales, reporting back in June.

So it appears we’ve sold the rigorous academic discipline of computer science; but not to simply increase the supply of programmers for the IT industry or to get more people to study computer science at university — the rationale has always been based upon computer science being of wider educational value to everyone, in the same way as we value physics and mathematics. But after a discussion with Pete Yeomans (@ethinking) at the CAS fringe event at Bett 2013 last week, it appears that we are now facing a more subtle and refined challenge:

This is the real (marketing?) challenge: to truly change the wider perception of the discipline, we now have to sell what it really means to be a computer scientist, how to think like a computer scientist and the universal potential of this mindset.

And everyone needs to understand and value this.

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We need a scientifically literate citizenry

Our species needs, and deserves, a citizenry with minds wide awake and a basic understanding of how the world works.

Carl Sagan (1934-1996)

Brian Cox said something similar (even directly referring to Sagan) during his acceptance speech on receiving the Institute of Physics President’s Medal last night.

The key message is: if you’re scientifically literate the world looks very different to you.

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The successful Welsh Geek Manifesto Pledge

In June, Chris Chambers and I started the Welsh Geek Manifesto Pledge, a declaration to send a copy of Mark Henderson‘s The Geek Manifesto to all 60 Assembly Members of the National Assembly of Wales.

Success! Yesterday, we received the final pledge and are collecting the donations. We are currently planning an event to maximise the impact of the delivery of the 60 copies of The Geek Manifesto to the National Assembly in Cardiff Bay (more details to follow shortly).

N.B. The Welsh Geek Manifesto Pledge followed the original Geek Manifesto Pledge for the 650 MPs in Westminster; there are open pledges in Northern Ireland (“Geekmanifulster”), Scotland (GeekScotland) and Australia (Geek the Vote).

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Cardiff Science Festival 2012

CSF banner

July 2012 marks the return of Cardiff Science Festival (a.k.a. Gŵyl Gwyddoniaeth Caerdydd), after a break of nearly seven years. Science festivals are popping up all over the country, especially with the popularity of Cheltenham Science Festival and the long-running British Science Festival (this year taking place in Aberdeen), so it’s about time Cardiff put itself back on the science map.

So, starting Monday 9th July, Cardiff will play host to a spectacular line-up of scientists and science communicators from across the UK in a range of science-themed events, lectures, exhibitions, music and comedy shows across the city. There are more than forty family and adult events over the week, including a few in which I am taking part:

It’s shaping up to be an excellent week! While the majority of the events are free, many require registration, so please check the CSF website, as well as @CdfScienceFest on Twitter, for the latest news, information and updates.

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BCS Education Bursary projects announced

Today, the BCS Academy of Computing announced the successful applicants of the BCS Education Bursaries, which aim to promote computer science as an academic discipline, in celebration of Alan Turing’s centenary year.

Over 200 schools, colleges and universities applied for the £30,000 fund and I had the pleasure of being on the judging panel, an exceptionally difficult process with so many high quality applications. After several hours of debate, we were able to fund 31 projects across the UK that we believe will enthuse and engage the next generation of technologists about computer science. A brief description of the successful projects can be found here.

I’d like to say a massive congratulations to the successful projects; I’m looking forward to seeing what impact they have over the next year!

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The Welsh Geek Manifesto Pledge

Further to The Geek Manifesto Pledge by Dave Watts, which has successfully pledged to put a copy of The Geek Manifesto on the desks of all 650 Members of Parliament, Chris Chambers and I have made the following pledge for science in Wales:

I will personally deliver 60 copies of The Geek Manifesto to the National Assembly for Wales, but only if 59 other people will help buy the books.

Chris, a psychologist/neuroscientist at Cardiff University, had already sent a copy of the book to our MP, Cardiff Central’s Jenny Willott. We met up for a beer a few weeks ago and resolved to send a copy of the book to all of the 60 Assembly Members in the National Assembly for Wales. We think this is an eminently achievable task and would present a great opportunity to reiterate the importance of science in the formulation of policy in Wales, especially in light of the publication of the Science for Wales strategy in March 2012.

Please sign the pledge and spread the word across Wales! We are currently planning how to maximise the impact of delivering 60 copies of the book to the National Assembly in Cardiff Bay.

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The Geek Manifesto Pledge

I highly recommend Mark Henderson‘s The Geek Manifesto: Why Science Matters; it is a remarkable book (see reviews here). The use of the sometimes pejorative term “geek” in the title should not trivialise the overriding message of the book: a compelling call for the scientific method to become intimately embedded into the political process (see a useful summary of this in Henderson’s recent CaSE blog post). As Stephen Curry succinctly puts it in his excellent review, while many of its themes are not new, it is difficult to imagine such a book being published as recently as five years ago.

Following an example described in the book, Dave Watts is using the PledgeBank website to send a copy of the book to all 650 MPs. Last week, Henderson confirmed that the publisher of The Geek Manifesto, Transworld Books, will match every individual pledge made. As of today, 242 people (including myself and many other geeks you may have heard of) have already signed up.

The book is currently selling on Amazon for £9.87, so by agreeing to spend a tenner — and spreading the word — you will ensure that a copy lands on the desk of two MPs once enough pledges have been collected. You can pledge to send a book here.

UPDATE: it appears that Chris Chambers, a psychologist at Cardiff University, has already sent a copy of the book to our MP, Cardiff Central’s Jenny Willott (Lib Dem). Perhaps we should consider doing the same thing for the 60 AMs in the National Assembly for Wales?

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Hack To The Future


I recently had the pleasure of being a keynote speaker at Hack To The Future, organised by Alan O’Donohoe (a.k.a. @teknoteacher) and held at his school, Our Lady’s Catholic High School in Preston.

Hack To The Future was pitched as an unconference to inspire the digital creators of tomorrow, attempting to introduce the wonders of computer science to over 250 children (in many cases, for the first time). Alongside the main keynotes from Samantha Bail (Manchester Girl Geeks), Jon Howard (Development Manager for Games in BBC Children’s Future Media) and an anonymous ethical hacker known only as Freaky Clown, there were a large number of breakout sessions, including: building fun things with Nanodes, creating games in HTML5, building a digital camera with the Microsoft .NET Gadgeteer, programming apps with YOUSRC, 3D printing, non-transitive dice, computer-controlled pyrotechnics and an unofficial peek at the new BBC Micro 2 development platform. In fact, there was great support from the BBC, with representatives from across BBC Learning and BBC R&D, as well as a roving camera crew recording the day’s events.

I had the honour of giving the final closing keynote (slides), attempting to send them away inspired with the possibilities of computer science and technology, but also highlighting the importance of technology curiosity: hacking, playing and having fun. I truly hope I was successful!

For a full run-down of the event, have a look at Alan’s comprehensive blog post; I also highly recommend BBC R&D research engineer Michael Sparks’ thoughts about the day.


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2011 Royal Society MP/Scientist Pairing Scheme

I will be spending next week in the House of Commons, as part of the Royal Society‘s 2011 MP/Scientist Pairing Scheme. This scheme aims to build bridges between parliamentarians, civil servants and some of the best research scientists in the UK; participating scientists are paired with either an MP or civil servant and take part in a Week in Westminster and reciprocal visits back to the researcher’s institution. The Royal Society offers this scheme as an easy way to provide MPs with the opportunity to explore the science behind their decisions; by pairing a MP or civil servant with a leading scientist, both gain an understanding of the work behind the fundamental issues involved in each field. Since 2001, over 150 scientists have been paired with MPs and civil servants.

I’m paired with Jenny Willott, the Liberal Democrat MP for Cardiff Central, who has previously taken part in the Scheme. I’ve met with Jenny a couple of times over the past couple of months, so very much looking forward to the Week in Westminster. The scientists have a action-packed schedule, including talks from the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology, the House of Commons and House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committees, the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee (who organise SET for BRITAIN, in which I took part in 2010) and Professor Sir John Beddington, the Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor. We will also spend time “shadowing” our MP, as well as attending PMQs on Wednesday! Overall, I hope the Scheme will give me further insight into how science policy is formed, as well as providing an opportunity for building long-term relationships to share knowledge and expertise with the Government.

(N.B. a similar scheme for the National Assembly for Wales, the Universities Pairing Scheme, has recently been announced by the Beacon for Wales)

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The Science (Café) of Logic

Contrariwise, if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn’t, it ain’t. That’s logic.

Through the Looking-Glass
Lewis Carroll (1832-1898)

On Tuesday night I made my second appearance on Science Café, BBC Radio Wales’ flagship weekly science and technology programme, which aims to explore the science and technology stories making the headlines and reveal the latest Welsh scientific research.

The topic of this week’s programme was logic: a two thousand year old system of reasoning and argumentation which (some) humans use every day, as well as being the foundation of computation and modern technology. I was joined on the panel by two distinguished colleagues, Professor John Tucker (Professor of Computer Science at Swansea University) and Professor Christopher Norris (Distinguished Research Professor in Philosophy at Cardiff University).

The discussion was driven by the expertise of the panel: starting from the development of “classical logic” as a formal system of the principles of inference and rational reasoning, all the way back to Aristotle and the classical trivium. Then moving into the mathematical logic of the late 19th century and early 20th century with Hilbert and his program to clarify the foundations of mathematics, how Gödel shattered Hilbert’s dream, and in particular, the significant contributions to philosophy, mathematics and logic of the Welsh-born Bertrand Russell. Logic cuts to the heart of computer science as it emerged as a discipline: Turing‘s work on the Entscheidungsproblem followed from Gödel’s work on the incompleteness theorems, with the notion of computation and general-purpose computers being of fundamental importance to the designers of the computer machinery in the 1940s. This rapidly moved on to a discussion of expressing human knowledge using logic with mathematical notation, developing “intelligent” thinking machines and the problems of artificial intelligence (especially so-called strong AI). This (briefly) touched upon my work using logic programming for real-world declarative problem-solving, particularly for provably optimal code generation and improving the efficiency of microprocessors.

In essence, the key point was made about how logic is pervasive in our modern technological society: in every piece of digital electronics and especially in software — a clear manifestation of logic. This led to an important education question: shouldn’t we be developing these important deductive reasoning, problem-solving and computational thinking skills at school? I certainly think so. Finally, in a move that may come back to haunt me in later years, I was asked to finish with a joke about logic…

The Science Café “Logic” programme is now available on iPlayer (but only for seven days after broadcast). You can also read about my week with the Science Café team in Wrexham in August 2011.

BBC Wales in Swansea

The BBC studio in Swansea, where Dylan Thomas made many of his radio broadcasts.

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SuperLab: Future Chips

Yesterday I travelled up to the University of Bradford for the British Science Festival, one of Europe’s largest science festivals. Each year the Festival travels to a different UK location, with over 250 events, activities, exhibitions and trips taking place over a week to showcase the latest in science, technology and engineering. The theme for the 2011 Festival is “Exploring new worlds“. The British Science Festival is also the culmination of my British Science Association Media Fellowship, after working with BBC Wales (predominantly BBC Radio Wales) for the past six weeks. I will be reporting from the Festival’s press centre throughout the week.

However, I am also here for SuperLab, a joint initiative between the National Higher Education STEM Programme and the British Science Association. The National HE STEM Programme supports higher education institutions in the exploration of new approaches to recruiting students and delivering programmes of study within the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines; I have previously worked with the Welsh HE STEM “spoke” based at Swansea University.

SuperLab consists of a poster-based campaign focusing on the wide range of in-store STEM applications in a modern supermarket, for example, the physics behind barcode scanners. It was originally planned to coincide with National Science and Engineering Week 2012 (every March, NSEW showcases how the sciences and engineering relate to our everyday lives and helps to inspire the next generation of scientists), but was reorganised to be part of this year’s Festival, as part of the Science in Action exhibition.

The topic for my research poster was the microprocessor, entitled “Future Chips“, somewhat subverting the original SuperLab theme. Nevertheless, I would assert that the invention of the microprocessor has had the greatest overall impact on our lives and development — I wanted to try and highlight to a wide audience how reliant we are on the all-pervasive microprocessor (especially its multitude of applications), as well as the ubiquitous nature of technology. In doing this, I wanted to get four main themes across:

  • Swimming in a Sea of Silicon: highlighting our reliance on microprocessors;
  • Limitations of Moore’s Law: how we are hitting the limits of existing architectural models and fabrication technologies;
  • The Future is Multi-Core: the move away from a single high-speed processor to a multi-core methodology — a single computing component with numerous independent processors;
  • The Challenge: Power Efficiency: in our increasingly connected digital world, improving the energy efficiency and power consumption of the billions of devices is paramount.

SuperLab wordle

So, with thanks to the superb work from the professional designers (especially considering some of my inane scribblings), here it is:

SuperLab: Future Chips

For further reading…

If you are interested, here are the references to the research that is (briefly) mentioned in my SuperLab poster (or contact me):

I’m also involved in HiPEAC, the European Network of Excellence on High Performance and Embedded Architecture and Compilation, funded under the European Commission Seventh Framework Programme (FP7). The aim of HiPEAC is to steer and increase European research in the area of high performance and embedded computing systems and stimulate cooperation between academia and industry; for more information about HiPEAC, check out its research and activities.

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A week at the Science Café

As part of my 2011 British Science Association Media Fellowship at BBC Wales (see other posts). I spent a week in Wrexham working on Science Café (@BBCScienceCafe), BBC Radio Wales’ flagship weekly science and technology programme presented by Adam Walton. It aims to explore the science and technology stories making the headlines and reveal the latest Welsh scientific research; in this way it differentiates from BBC Click by focusing more on science and scientists rather than consumer technology.

Science Café is based at the new BBC North East Wales site at the Centre for the Creative Industries, Glyndŵr University. I spent a week working with Jeremy Grange and Alan Daulby, two excellent BBC producers, discussing ideas for future Science Café programmes.

BBC in Wrexham

I had initially planned on pitching programme ideas to raise the perception of computer science research, as well as the importance of computing education and the wider societal impact of technology. However, an idea quickly developed around a “Desert Island Discs for scientists”, to understand what inspired researchers in Wales to become scientists. This very quickly evolved into a programme that was recorded on Thursday 18th August and broadcast on Tuesday 23rd August; I was joined on the programme by two other scientists based in Wales:

  • An astronomer, Dr Edward Gomez, who is Education Director for Las Cumbras Observatory Global Telescope Network in Cardiff University.
  • Dr Anna Croft, a bio-chemist at Bangor University looking at biological interactions and reaction mechanisms.

The 30 minute programme was based around a panel discussion, with each of us describing our main influences and inspiration as scientists, especially what first hooked us as children. My childhood influences possibly adhered to the geek stereotype (although, geek chic is now rather fashionable): the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (passim on this blog), Star Trek (predominantly TNG), Doctor Who, the BBC Micro and Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, as well as a couple of inspiring science and maths teachers at my secondary school in Oxford (particularly Steve Drywood, who sadly passed away a few years ago). The scientists who I felt had inspired or influenced me over my formative years were Richard Feynman, Alan Turing and Stephen Hawking (although due to the editing, I only mentioned Professor Steve Furber, who is best known for his work at Acorn, where he was one of the designers of the BBC Micro). We finished with some future gazing, describing our own research and its possible wider impact on society. I did notice some of my idiosyncrasies, particularly a penchant for saying “kind of” when I start to ramble on. However, it was very well edited by Alan, squeezing the best bits of the c.45 minute discussion into the programme.

Overall, a big thanks to Jeremy and Alan for making me feel welcome in Wrexham (especially in the quiet week after the 2011 National Eisteddfod of Wales!) and I look forward to working with Science Café in the future. Keep an eye out for future programmes on logic and computing education…

The “Inspiration” Science Café programme is now available on iPlayer!
(UPDATE: unfortunately the programme is only available on iPlayer for seven days after being broadcast…but I do have my own personal copy if you are desperate to listen to it.)

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