124. Trump, Russia and Lysenko: A cautionary tale

Submitted to Washington Post just before Christmas 2016. Nearly made it, but eventually missed out, The message for science is sadly stark. The U.S. should learn from Russian history “Are you now, or have you ever been, a climate scientist?” Donald Trump’s recent demand that the Department of Energy provide the names of all staff who have been involved in climate research smacks of McCarthyist paranoia, but this worrying aspect of ...

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Vale Leonard Cohen: that’s how it goes.

Posted on November 11, 2016

Leonard Cohen has died. Perhaps he should have received a Nobel Prize, or shared one with Bob Dylan, because he certainly produced some of the most memorable descriptions of the human condition to be found anywhere. The one that sticks in my mind is this: Everybody knows that the dice are loaded Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed Everybody knows the war is over Everybody knows the good guys lost Everybody knows the ...

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Food books for food enthusiasts

Posted on November 10, 2016

Do you have a passion for food and cooking? Do you want access and guidance on the best in culinary literature? Former molecular biologist Matt Cockerill has an answer, in the form of a new web-based project called 1000 Cookbooks ( As a start, leading chefs, food writers and other food professionals were asked to list their own 10 favourite cookbooks (ones that actually contain recipes and other practical material). I was ...

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Rosetta and Bali: Coincidence or conspiracy?

Posted on November 2, 2016

Dateline: November 2nd, 2016. Staying on Bali, and idly glancing at the right-hand NASA topographic map of Bali from space, the similarity to the left-hand image of comet P67 taken from the Rosetta spacecraft suddenly struck me. Yes, I know that I have reflected NASA’s original published image of the comet about the vertical plane, but could it have not been reflected in the first place just to fool us? Are the published images of P67 ...

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IgNobel or Nobel – which has more value?

Posted on September 23, 2016

It may sound ridiculous to argue that a spoof IgNobel Prize could ever have more value than an actual Nobel. Of course, when it comes to real science, the Nobels are still the pinnacle. But perhaps, as I pointed out in this interview on the BBC World Service recorded on Sep 23, 2016, the IgNobels are actually more valuable when it comes to attracting attention to science and making it more accessible. Here is the interview (all 3 minutes of ...

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120. Joseph Priestley’s imaginative political justification for the pursuit of pure science.

A great deal of nonsense is currently being spouted by people who believe that the days of unfettered “fundamental,” “pure,” “blue-sky” research are over – or, at least, that they ought to be, and that scientists should come out into the “real world,” whatever that may be. It would be interesting to see the same arguments being applied to religious practitioners, or politicians, or even some businessmen. Be that as it may, I ...

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119. Science in the real world: predicting society

If you think that science, and scientific thinking, have little to do with the rough-and-tumble of the real world, think again – and take a look at this wonderful paper by a group of psychologists and mathematicians from the Cornell-Princeton-Yale triangle ( that I recently had occasion to revisit. As with many scientific papers, it will probably put you off at first glance. Like the plain front door of a ...

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118. Gassing on about neon

Posted on July 26, 2016

A recent article provides an exciting glimpse into one way that scientists think, although you might not think it is so exciting at first glimpse. Let the scientists speak for themselves: Neon is an abundant element in the atmosphere, but it is much scarcer on Earth due to its chemical inertness. Discovered in 1898, early studies of neon contributed greatly to our basic understanding of the nature of atoms, giving us our first observations of ...

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What Nepal really needs to do about landslip disasters

July, 2016 After hearing a well-informed talk by the experienced Nepal road engineer Bleddyn Griffiths about his experience of the Nepal earthquake disaster, I suggested that we write a joint letter about both the science and the realities, which are linked in a more complex way than seismologists sometimes recognize. It was duly published in Geoscientist, the magazine for Fellows of the Royal Geological Society. Rather proud of this, really, ...

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On the Fat-Headedness of Crowds

July 25th, 2016 The result of the recent UK referendum on whether to stay in or to leave Europe has come as a shock to many of us. More than one correspondent has asked me “I thought there was this thing called group intelligence which said that, the larger the group, the surer they are to get the right answer?” I wrote quite a lot about this in my book The Perfect Swarm, and there are two points to be made: Group intelligence ...

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