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SciShow!

So the short version is: I’ve been doing freelance writing for the science YouTube channel SciShow, and for SciShow Space. I’ve been a fan of their work (and their sister channel Crash Course) for a while, so this was a pretty exciting opportunity to come my way. I’m writing scripts on all sorts of topics for them, and (hopefully) getting better as I’ve been going.

This post will serve as a hub for all my SciShow activity – basically whenever a video comes out featuring one of my scripts, I’ll update this post with it.

Here’s a playlist of all of the videos I’ve worked on: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLCMyt4hQcjicMjh1aYbSFQAkBIv22h8qh

And, in reverse-chronological order by release date, here’s all the videos with scripts by yours truly:


Continue reading SciShow!

A year in writing

The last year has been… long. But I’m currently sitting in my hotel room after a great two week holiday in Italy and a lovely four day conference in Brittany (where I won a poster prize, of all things) so I have a bit of time to go over all of the stuff I’ve written over the past year or so.

If you’re interested in a list of everything I’ve written over the last year, here’s a complete rundown:

  • In September I went to the Labour Party conference to represent Scientists for Labour, which I’m on the committee for. It was an amazing experience and I wrote about it here. With this year’s conference shaping up to be… interesting, it might be worth seeing a bit of how last year’s went.
  • For UCL’s Pi Media society I wrote this post on their blog about the winner of last year’s physics Nobel Prize, and why he also sort of has an Oscar!
  • I contributed to an article in Astronomy and Geophysics magazine about the outreach work I did last year. It’s behind a paywall (I’m sure if you google around you can find a certain academic literature piracy site that can help you solve that problem) but the link is here.
  • I’m still doing work for Chalkdust magazine, including contributing to features, proofreading articles, and wearing the t-shirt on holiday so I can send nice snaps to the crew! Here’s me in St. Malo, Brittany, during the conference excursion to the town.
  • In terms of writing for Chalkdust, in March’s edition of the magazine, I had a cute, tongue-in-cheek, one-page article about machine learning.
  • For the Chalkdust blog in June I had a piece about numerical integration.
  • And yeah I also wrote… this. I’m actually kind of pleased with how it turned out, despite not really wanting to write it and only doing so to vent my feelings. Check it out if you want but be warned as it’s long and kind of personal.
On the academic side of things, two papers I contributed to about the outreach work I did last year were published. Links to them are here and here, and they’re open access so you don’t need to worry about any paywalls. I have a small paper about my actual PhD work in press, and I’m writing this little thing I’m calling a “thesis” which should hopefully be done by this time next year!

 

That’s all for now. See you soon!

Elseworlds

With the Justice League movie threatening promising to hit theatres soon, I thought it’d be fun to do a little “Elseworlds” thought experiment. Comics are fond of ‘parallel universe’ stories, where our world is presented in a slightly altered form to compare and contrast with. In DC comics they’re often called “Elseworld” stories, such as “Communist Superman“,  “Victorian Batman“, “Wild West Justice League“…

In that spirit, here’s my Elseworlds tale: what if Marvel movies sucked and DC ones were popular? In that Elseworlds:

  • Ben Affleck’s Batman trilogy is wrapped up in 2013 after a good start, weak sequel (to set up Justice League) and strong third showing
  • Can audiences learn to love an earnest, pure-hearted superhero wearing red and blue tights? The Russo Brother’s Superman trilogy emphatically said yes
  • Joss Whedon’s Justice League (2012) blowns audiences away. Lex Luthor is perfectly cast and recurs as a character in several future DCCU movies
  • Benedict Cumberbatch gains praise for his entertaining portrayal of obscure character Dr. Fate
  • After the underwhelming Justice League: Age of Amazo, the teaser for Justice League: New Gods leaves Comic Con’s Hall H stunned and awed
  • (Josh Brolin is playing Darkseid, of course)
  • Gina Rodriguez’s fans are complaining that Hawkgirl still hasn’t been given a movie yet, despite being in two Justice League movies!
  • On the other hand, Stephen Amell’s Justice League TV spinoff, Green Arrow, is going strong
  • Brandon Routh sees his shot at redemption after Superman Returns with a big-budget Atom movie. The shrinking superhero gets mediocre reviews after some controversy with Edgar Wright
  • This April sees the release of Legion of Superheroes Vol. 2 to critical acclaim
  • This July sees the release of Shazam: Homecoming after DC finally secured the film rights to their beloved teen superhero
  • After two underwhelming Wonder Woman movies, the trailer for Taika Waititi’s Wonder Woman: Clash of the Titans actually looks super fun!
  • Agents of STAR, a TV show set in the DCCU, finds its niche after a rocky start
  • Powerless, an office comedy about a superhero insurance company set in the DC universe, is cancelled aft-oh wait that actually happened.
  • Gotham still sucks
And on the Marvel side:
  • Man of Iron is just… bad
  • Captain America: Civil War forces Rotten Tomatoes to re-define its badness scale to count how bad it is. The conflict ends when Iron Man finds out Captain America’s dad is called Howard… The Duck
  • Somehow a Masters of Evil movie gets made. Jared Leto’s Doctor Doom is panned as being the worst incarnation of the character ever
  • Captain Marvel is awesome! Avengers is re-tooled to have as much of her as possible in it. Speaking of…
  • Joss Whedon is brought in to script doctor Zac Snyder’s Avengers movie at the last minute. Mere months from its release it’s not looking good for the tentpole movie
  • The Thor movie is on its third director, two years behind schedule. Is re-named Ragnarok to set up the destruction/reset button of the whole universe
  • A flood of various movies based on minor characters are announced. No one knows what the hell is going on. It’s just a big mess…
The moral of the story here is: DC, get your shit together! Look how deep into your insane continuity you could be by now! Marvel made us feel feels for Rocket Raccoon and Groot, but you’re nowhere near Matter-Eater Lad, you’re still stuck on ‘Batman and Superman are friends’. I want to see the look on respectable critics’ faces when they have to take Granny Goodness seriously! But you have a long way to go to reach that point! I hope you figure it out.

Recent Writing

I’ve written a few popsci pieces over the past year. So here’s a quick update with a bullet point list of some of my recent articles/contributions:

  • I wrote a piece for UCL’s main student magazine, Pi Magazine, which was about Alan Turing, AI and AI research. It was called The Thought Experiment (in the November 2016 issue).
  • I’ve been doing a lot of work behind the scenes for UCL’s Chalkdust Magazine, a magazine run by mathematics postgraduates about maths, from a popsci perspective. Notably, that includes contributing several (bad) jokes to a recent Dear Dirichlet column which appeared in the magazine.
  • More impressively, a half-page space filler piece about my ‘Least Favourite Number’ on page 8 of issue 5 (the Spring 2017 issue) of Chalkdust actually got me some ‘hate mail’ (tongue firmly in cheek, i suspect/hope) from fans of the number I ‘insulted’ in my piece!
  • Back at Pi Magazine, I wrote an article about exoplanets in the most recent issue (May 2017), called An Interstellar Exodus. I was quite pleased with how this one turned out!
 

Most interestingly, besides the recent popsci writing, I also made a short popsci video for YouTube called What does an atom look like? This video was done in collaboration with the PhysFilmMakers project I’ve been working with this year. I’m quite pleased with how this turned out (especially since, barring my GCSE in Media Studies from 10 years ago, I’ve never done this sort of thing before), so do check it out.

 

For completeness (more so I don’t forget about them than anything else!) here’s my other contributions to Pi and Chalkdust Magazines over the past two years: one online piece for Pi on the Six Degrees of Separation from November 2015, one online piece for Chalkdust on the Twelve Days of Christmas from December 2016, and one short column in the Pi print magazine about open access publication from the January 2016 issue.

 

Coming soon: I am a named, contributing (though by no means main!) author on two upcoming academic papers concerning the outreach work I have been doing over the past few months. I have no idea when those will be published. I also wrote a more “general audience” piece (with contributions from my colleagues in the project) about one of these outreach projects for the Astronomy and Geophysics magazine, which (hopefully!) will appear in its October issue. I’m looking forward to everyone seeing that because it represents many months of hard work by me and my colleagues (ok mostly my colleagues they did most of the heavy lifting I just came along for the ride), and it’s an impactful project we all believe in quite strongly.

 

Besides that, it’s been a busy few months since I last wrote on this blog (in March). Between a holiday, the snap general election (where I campaigned a lot for a certain underdog red team…), summer conferences, outreach projects, some writing work, and moving flat… I’ve had a lot on my mind. Not to mention I even do a PhD sometimes 😉

More updates coming soon!

-Tom

Voice of the Future Part 2

Here’s a more in-depth description of the questions and answers from the Voice of the Future event.

My question was to Chi Onwurah, the first person in the hotseat. You can watch it at this link (14:24:30-14:26:27). The question was: “The government is promoting apprenticeships, but many jobs are still advertised as requiring a degree, ruling out those who took a non-academic route. What should we do about this?”

CHI IN THE HOTSEAT (FROM THE RSB’S TWITTER)

As a last-minute substitute, I didn’t contribute to the question, but it’s a good one! Apprenticeships are very important alternatives to university, and they should be treated as legitimate alternative routes to good careers in a variety of fields, including scientific ones such as lab technicians and forensics.

HERE I AM WITH SOME OF THE OTHER YOUNG SCIENTISTS LISTENING TO CHI ONWURAH’S RESPONSE TO MY QUESTION

Thankfully, she had a very good answer to this very good question! It began with a canned response outlining Labour’s policy on “advanced apprenticeships” (distinguishing itself from what Labour claims is the Tories’ focus on lower-skilled ones). But it’s good policy, so I’m happy. She also talked about changing the culture surrounding apprenticeships, suggesting we could increase transparency by highlighting people who have become successful via the apprenticeship route. She also noted that when she began her career as an engineer (after graduating from Imperial College!) many of the CTOs she met had come through the apprenticeship route, and lamented that this was no longer the case.

CHI ANSWERING MY QUESTION (THAT’S MY FRIEND HELEN LOOKING AT HER BY THE WAY! HI, HELEN!)

Chi also had great responses to other great questions. These included a nod to the excellent new film about NASA engineers called Hidden Figures in response to a question about mathematical literacy in schools, and the great quote “we shouldn’t change the meaning of science for one man” in reference to a certain orange-faced POTUS… She also spoke excellently on issues faced by women in STEM. Her whole section is worth a watch; she’s a thoroughly impressive MP.

SHOUT-OUT TO HIDDEN FIGURES, A GREAT FILM

Mark Walport was up next and also had some interesting things to say. Notably, he endorsed the STEAM acronym, adding “arts” to the usual science, tech, engineering and maths acronym. He also encouraged more reporting of negative results in science, discussed how to act when science and public opinion collide, and how to write policy governing self-driving cars.

MARK WALPORT STEPS UP TO BAT (YOU CAN SEE IULIA, ANOTHER FRIEND OF MINE, NEXT TO HELEN BY THE WAY. HI, IULIA!) (SOURCE)

After Mark came Jo “No, You’re Thinking Of My Brother” Johnson MP. For me this was the most interesting part of the event. He gave some good answers where he defended so-called blue skies research, endorsed evidence-based policy, and expressed support for open-access publication. But of course, he also defended a lot of government policy I’m not too happy about, including the TEF, immigration, and, of course, (*long, deep sigh*) Brexit.

BORIS WITH JO “OH YEAH I FORGOT BORIS HAD A BROTHER” JOHNSON… FUN FACT: Jo, Jo’s dad, and Jo’s sister all backed remain! Awkward!

He gave the usual platitudes around valuing collaborations with EU research collaborators, but as they say in Westeros, words are wind. It’s one thing to say how much you care about preserving UK/EU collaborations, it’s another to want to burn every bridge we have with Europe, as the May government he is part of is doing.

JO JOHNSON GETS A GRILLING (SOURCE)

He was also asked an important question by the Geological Society: “why does the government continue to include international students in the immigration cap?” I felt his response was not good enough. For a start, in what I thought was a typical patrician Tory remark, he said “this conversation produces a lot of heat and not much light”, which sounds like the kind of thing you’re free to say when you’re not directly affected by these policies, unlike a lot of people I know personally.

He claimed “there’s no limit to the number of international students that can come to the UK”, which may be true, but the government does currently include international students in immigration figures. (Though as of this week that may change!) This is a highly charged and provocative statistic which has been the source of much political chest-thumping in recent years, mainly thanks to UKIP and the tabloids.

The Tories infamously pledged (and re-pledged!) to reduce net migration to below 100k a year, and, as Home Secretary, Theresa May introduced punishing laws concerning international students who graduate to help achieve this (unachievable…) goal. Clearly including international students in immigration figures produces tangible effects on policy, and Jo seemed to be either wilfully or ignorantly denying this fact as he tried to get away with slipping a pretty big caveat into his defence of the government’s policy in this area.

The Committee get their turn (source)

Finally, Jo was replaced with four members of the actual committee: Stephen Metcalfe, Dr Tania Mathias, Matt Warman and Carol Monaghan (three Tory and one SNP MP respectively). Anna, a friend of mine representing the Council for the Mathematical Sciences, asked a great question about how AI and policy intersect, including a discussion of “robot taxes”. Another person asked about the UK space industry (something I’m involved with in a small way), we got the inevitable “post-truth politics” discussion, and more Brexit platitudes which my friend dismissed rather effectively (but to be fair, Tania, one of the Tories on the panel, did rebel against the government to protect EU residents post-Brexit…)

Yep

With respect to their oratory abilities, amicability, and intelligence, no MP stood out as being notably better or worse than any other. They all seemed like fine parliamentarians. But it’s no secret that I prefer Labour to the Conservatives, and so it’s inevitable that I’d conclude I was more impressed by Chi’s answers than Jo’s (though to be fair I liked a lot of what Tania had to say). While everyone had great, positive points to make which showed they clearly understood the challenges faced by people working in STEM, I couldn’t look past Jo’s bad defences of what I think are some bad government policies. I wish I could have scrutinised what he had to say, to be honest. I still stand by what I wrote in the first post, though. This was an incredible event I’m very grateful to have been a part of.

 

Grilling MPs at Voice of the Future 2017

IT’S A-ME! (SOURCE)

If you had the chance to ask an MP one question, what would it be?

A few weeks ago I blogged about writing to your MP as an act of civic responsibility. Yesterday, alongside dozens of other young scientists and engineers, I was given the amazing privilege and opportunity to ask an MP a question directly.

House of Commons select committees are small committees of MPs. Their job is to scrutinise the government on behalf of parliament, and they do this by inviting witnesses to testify before the committee. In these meetings, the committee sit around a famous horseshoe-shaped table, with a witness placed in the ‘hotseat’ in front of them. An infamous example from recent memory is the grilling Sir Philip Green faced from the Business, Innovation and Skills committee over the BHS pensions scandal.

THE FAMOUS HORSESHOE TABLE, WITH SIR PHILIP GREEN IN THE HOTSEAT

The Science and Technology Committee is another such committee, charged with scrutinising science-related government policy, from the environment to education to research funding and beyond. They meet and hear from all sorts, including academics and experts. But yesterday, the tables were turned for the Royal Society of Biology’s fifth annual Voice of the Future event.

TOOK THIS PICTURE WHILE QUEUING TO GET IN. NOT A BAD VIEW!

At this event, young scientists from several of the UK’s learned societies such as CaSE, the Biochemical Society, and even two high schools, were invited to Parliament to reverse the usual format of the select committee, and ask the committee members key questions on science and tech policy issues taken from the suggestions of young scientists.

MY VIEW FROM THE TABLE

As the RSB’s director of parliamentary affairs Dr Stephen Benn (brother of Hilary Benn!) noted:

“This is a unique event – in no other part of Parliament is the normal select committee format completely reversed so that MPs have to answer questions rather than ask them. It is important that policy makers use reliable evidence in their decisions, and today’s young scientists and engineers will be vital for this in the future.”

DR STEPHEN BENN

The event had four parts. First, Chi Onwurah, Labour MP for Newcastle Central & Shadow Minister for Industrial Strategy, was put in the hotseat and asked questions. Then she was replaced by Professor Sir Mark Walport, Chief Scientific Adviser to the government, followed by Tory Minister for Universities and Science Jo Johnson MP (brother of Boris Johnson!), and finally by members of the committee proper: four MPs led by Tory MP Stephen Metcalfe.

Thanks to a last-minute drop out from one of the scheduled attendees from the Institute of Physics, I was given the opportunity to come to the event and ask a question to Chi Onwurah MP and hear her reply. You can watch it at this link (14:24:30 – 14:26:27).

HERE I AM WITH SOME OF THE OTHER YOUNG SCIENTISTS LISTENING TO CHI ONWURAH’S RESPONSE TO MY QUESTION

After her session ended, Sir Mark Walport took the hotseat, and a different IoP member got a turn to represent the organisation. I went to sit with the audience and watched the rest of the event unfold. (I also began furiously livetweeting!)

There were lots of good questions from all of the participants, and plenty of interesting responses from the MPs in question. I wrote about them in more detail in another blog post.

The committee closed the panel with a discussion of how they became MPs. Dr Tania Mathias, a Tory MP, concluded with a great quote: “you’re probably more political than you realise,” which I appreciated. They also gave out some “I Heart Evidence” badges, which they all wear on the committee.

WHO DOESN’T?? (SOURCE)

Select committees are a vital part of our democracy. They’re a place for all kinds of experts to inform policymakers and keep their decisions rooted in reality (in principle…). As this event was happening, MPs were in the Commons debating a major U-turn on a key part of the government’s week-old budget statement. That may be where the ‘glamour’ (and certainly the media) was, but the grunt work of government was happening in our room, as the scientists (and maybe political leaders?) of tomorrow got a taste of how our democracy functions, all while getting to voice our concerns to the Powers That Be.

EXAMPLES OF SOME OF THE QUESTIONS ASKED TO THE COMMITTEE. (SOURCE)

Of course it was scripted. Of course all the questions and answers were canned. But they were damn good questions written by young scientists, and they needed to be asked. The fact that the MPs were made to understand that young scientists care about these issues (funding, Brexit, tech policy, education, etc.) is an important thing in and of itself. They work for us, and whether by writing letters, going to protests, or getting involved in events like this, they must never be allowed to forget that.

I want to express my gratitude to the IoP for allowing me to fill in at the last minute. I want to thank my friend Ben for helping to arrange for me to come. I want to thank all the friends I saw at the event (and thank you, Iulia, for your expert-level livetweeting). I want to thank all the MPs who came, all the Royal Society of Biology staff, especially Dr Stephen Benn, for organising everything, and the staff in the learned societies and in Westminster who made it all possible. It’s cheesy to say but it’s an event I’ll never forget.

Write To Your MP!

These are dark times, with democracy under threat in a way we haven’t seen in decades. But for now we do live in a democracy. We still decide who rules us. They are not our masters; we are theirs: They work for us. I just wrote to my MP. You should write to yours.

The message was sent using a template provided by writetothem.com, partially based on a script provided by the Science Is Vital advocacy group, but it’s almost entirely my own words, my own feelings, my own call to action. If there’s an issue you feel strongly about, I encourage you to add your own voice to the shout.

Here’s the full text of the message I just sent to my local MP, a lovely man named Andy Slaughter whom I have met several times:

“Dear Andrew Slaughter,

My name is Tom Rivlin, and I have been a constituent of yours for several years now. I am a member of the Labour Party and have met you on a few occasions when campaigning for Sadiq Khan, for Stronger In, and more, and have always been impressed and inspired by your personality and your politics. For the first time I feel compelled to write to you on an issue which I feel very strongly about:

Like many of your constituents, I attended Imperial College, one of the greatest scientific institutions in the world. I am currently a physics PhD student at another great UK university, UCL, so the future of science in the UK is important to me. Recently I have become concerned that that future is under threat.

On a personal level, the EU-funded research grant which sustained my research group for many years ended recently, leaving our future in question. I know from speaking to friends and colleagues that I am not the only one in such a situation, and I have no doubt that many of your constituents at Imperial and elsewhere are facing similar funding concerns in the short and long term.

Furthermore, like many of my colleagues, I wasn’t born in this country. In my short time as a researcher, I have collaborated with people from both inside and outside the EU, and many of my colleagues are now extremely concerned about their future place in Britain. Regardless of the actual immigration situation we end up with after Brexit is settled, the rhetoric alone is sufficient to prompt many scientists to consider leaving, as post-referendum polling has shown:

http://www.nature.com/news/brexit-vote-drives-uk-academics-to-think-about-leaving-1.21259

With all of this in mind, as your constituent I have two requests:

– Whilst I accept that eventually you must vote to trigger Article 50, and understand the difficult electoral position Labour finds itself in over the issue, I see no reason why the ratified bill must be on whatever terms it is first submitted to Parliament with. Whilst I would greatly prefer it if freedom of movement could be preserved, at the very minimum I would be disappointed if you voted for an Article 50 bill without the amendments proposed by Labour:

http://press.labour.org.uk/post/156404587259/labour-tables-targeted-amendments-to-article-50

– There is an Early Day Motion proposal concerning the future of funding in the UK post-Brexit: EDM 772 (full text attached as postscript). It would bring me a great amount of relief to know my MP has signed this bill.

Thank you so much for taking the time to read my concerns.

Yours sincerely,

Tom Rivlin

Full EDM text:
Access to EU research programmes

That this House recognises the importance of maintaining the UK’s world-leading research base; notes that this is vital to the UK’s international reputation and to its future health, environment and economy; emphasises that science is international and depends on the freedom of all researchers to seek collaboration and training around Europe and the world; further recognises the unique collaborative opportunities provided by EU research programmes through international movement of researchers allowing skills and knowledge to be shared; further notes that the UK is a net beneficiary of the EU research budget which currently provides 10 per cent of UK public-funded research; and calls on the Government to preserve access to these vital EU research funding programmes whatever the form of the UK’s future relations with the EU.

Link: www.parliament.uk/edm/2016-17/772 ”

 

Don’t give in to despair: keep fighting!

 

 

The n Days of Christmas Remastered

Last Christmas I made a blog post called The n Days of Christmas.

This year I’ve ‘remastered’ it, and it has been published as Day 1 of the Chalkdust 2016 Advent Calendar! I’m really pleased with how it’s turned out, so please do check it out!

The n days of Christmas

Chalkdust have some great content prepared for Advent 2016, so do make sure to check them out daily over the course of the month!

 

Merry Christmas, happy holidays, etc etc!

Summer PopSci Reading

I just love popular science… as you may have noticed. This year, I read a lot of popular science books, especially whilst travelling to and from the various conferences I went to, and the holidays I went on, over the summer. (Oh yeah, did I mention I go to conferences now? How cool is that?) I thought it might be fun to go through the books I read this summer and give them a review. So, in reverse reading order:

Alex’s Adventures in Numberland — Alex Bellos

Alex Bellos is a regular on my beloved Numberphile YouTube channel, and he wrote a book a few years ago about more of the human side of mathematics. I only picked it up recently, but it was a good read. It was very breezy, simple, fun, and engaging. Most of the chapters in the book were dedicated to people who are doing fun, quirky things you wouldn’t normally associate with maths: things like thinking of silly puzzles in magazine columns, or doing origami, or Rubik’s Cubes, or making non-Euclidean geometries… with crochet!

But what Bellos does well is convince you that these weird sideshows are real maths, they matter just as much as topology, or calculus, or number theory… and what these people are doing is actually really fun and interesting! It’s full of interviews with the actual people doing these things, so you get to hear in their own words why what they do matters. Bellos is an experienced travel writer, and it really does feel like a travel blog from the exotic country of Numberland.

It also has just enough of a primer on the actual maths involved to engage science nerds like me who like the gory details. I thought it could have used a bit more of this, and some of the actual maths explanations, like about the history of numbers, or Euclid’s geometry, I’ve seen done better elsewhere, but maybe that’s just me.

Rating:
Accessible? – – – – – – 9.5/10
Interesting subject? – – 7.0/10
Science content? – – – 6.5/10
Well written? – – – – – 7.0/10
Overall score? – – – – 7.0/10
(I reserve the right to weight each category totally arbitrarily!)


The Signal and the Noise — Nate Silver

I love Nate Silver, and not just because we share a birthday! He’s a pretty sharp guy who’s damn good at what he does, and what he does is predict. Silver runs the blog FiveThirtyEight, which famously correctly predicted which way 49/50 states would vote in the 2008 US presidential election. He improved his model, and in 2012 he got all 50. (He’s working hard on 2016, believe me!) He started off in sports statistics around the era of the Moneyball story, and moved into political prediction in the mid-2000s. The Signal and the Noise is about prediction, in various forms. He talks about his own political and sporting predictions, and their successes and failures, but he also talks about the financial crash, gambling, weather forecasting, climate modelling, and more, and in each case he evaluates how each particular field’s prognostication power holds up to scrutiny.

He also talks about his preferred method of prediction: Bayesian inference, a mathematical idea that’s part equation, part philosophy, and part way-of-life. Although most of the chapters in the book aren’t about the sciences, I’d say this book should be almost required reading for anyone working in science, on both the theory and experiment side. It’s shocking how little statistics some scientists (myself included) can get away with knowing, and how little thought we actually put into what our data means. This is a big part of the theme of the book, along with teaching how to distinguish between signal and noise (hence the name). It’s well written, quite technical, and thoroughly detailed, but also full of personal anecdotes and human stories, and it’ll help you see through bullshit and spurious claims from all sorts of places. Definitely check this book out.

Accessible? – – – – – – 7.5/10
Interesting subject? – – 9.5/10
Science content? – – – 8.0/10
Well written? – – – – – 9.0/10
Overall score? – – – – 9.5/10


Smashing Physics — Jon Butterworth

(The book is marketed as Most Wanted Particle in North America.) Now, full disclosure here, Jon Butterworth is the head of the UCL physics department, making him technically my “boss”. But I like his book anyway! Yay! Professor Butterworth is a particle physicist, and one of the “higher ups” at CERN. (You know, that place where they smash the particles in the big ring so Al Gore can invent the internet?) Due to his position in CERN, Professor Butterworth knows all of the insider information from the organisation from what is arguably its most exciting period ever — the completion of the LHC and the search for the Higgs boson. The Higgs boson is a fascinating theoretical object in its own right, but the book isn’t about that, it’s about the human story of the people who worked at CERN during this time.

Professor Butterworth goes through the history of CERN and his personal involvement with it, mostly focusing on the time from the LHC being turned on (and the ensuing media attention) to the Higgs officially being discovered. Aside from some brief tangents into the very basic outline of the physics, which amounts to just enough to explain why they’re doing what they’re doing, the book is mostly about the consequences of letting a bunch of nerds run a multi-billion-Euro, international science experiment. Hilarity ensues!

It’s fascinating stuff, and it’s written in a very light, easy-to-digest tone that I think does a great job of showing what we physicists are like, what our jobs are like, and what our lives are like. A great read.

Accessible? – – – – – – 10/10
Interesting subject? – – 8.5/10
Science content? – – – 6.5/10
Well written? – – – – – 8.5/10
Overall score? – – – – 8.0/10


The Rise of the Robots — Martin Ford

No, it’s not a science fiction book. It’s actually more of an economics book. (So more dismal science than popular science!) Automation is a huge part of our modern lives (I did my MSci project on it, and Ford actually cites some of the same people as my dissertation), and it’s set to become even more prominent as technology progresses.

In a well-written, easy to understand book, Martin Ford takes a look at some of the progress recently made in AI, robotics, computing, and engineering, and assesses how these technologies are going to affect the job market over the next few decades. Simply put: if an AI can do most jobs better than any human, why hire humans at all? And once we’ve got to that stage, what do we do with people who aren’t unemployed, but unemployable? Humans need not apply.

Most people, when presented with this argument, cite historical precedent: there’s been mass shifts in employment in the past due to new technologies, why should now be any different? Automation won’t mean fewer jobs, just different ones. Ford presents what I think is the best, most well-argued case against this assertion and explains why this time it really is different, why, unlike in the past, the new jobs automation will bring won’t be sufficient, and why we should be afraid, be very afraid.

Accessible? – – – – – – 8.0/10
Interesting subject? – – 9.0/10
Science content? – – – 6.5/10
Well written? – – – – – 8.0/10
Overall score? – – – – 8.0/10


So that’s Tom’s summer conference reading list. What’s next? Well I’m going to another conference next week, the last one of the summer to round off conference season. It’s in the exotic, far off locale of… Cambridge (England, not Massachusetts), so I’d better bring some light reading. Luckily, I’ve got just the thing:

A 400-page tome on philosophy and theoretical physics from my favourite popular science author, Sean Carroll! Maybe I’ll review it later, along with some of the other popular science books I read earlier in the year. Until then, thanks for reading!