Stray Thoughts

Things that tickle my fancy

The Great Barrier Reef is in great danger

Posted on May 30, 2016

Here is the self-explanatory text of a letter sent to the Sydney Morning Herald, but not accepted for publication. Perhaps I should have been rougher, because the original draft referred to the exposed backside as being in need of a thorough kicking. "The Government has had Australia’s name removed from a UNESCO report on the effects of climate change on World Heritage areas, including the Barrier Reef (Herald Environment May 27) in the ...

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My submission to the House of Commons inquiry on science communication

Posted on April 28, 2016

PERSONAL BACKGROUND I am a practising scientist, writer and broadcaster who has spent the last two decades working to make science more accessible and more a part of our culture by showing how scientists think about everyday problems, from the trivial to the profound ( In recent times, I have been involved in developing strategies for coping with slowly developing catastrophic risks (e.g. http://len...

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Books To Read Before Going To University

Posted on April 14, 2016

Books To Read Before University Thursday, April 14th, 2016 The Times Education Supplement and the Times Higher Education Supplement have combined to produce a feature article on books that students should read before going to university ( I was pleased that my contribution to the discussion was used pretty well in full. Here it is: Len Fisher, visiting fellow in ...

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Are you a polymath? What’s your Erdös-Bacon-Sabbath number?

Posted on February 17, 2016

Here is my article for the Times Higher Education Supplement on how I worked out the closeness of my creative links to the mathematician Paul Erdös, the actor Kevin Bacon, and the heavy metal music group Black Sabbath, and found myself to be in the same category as Brian Cox, Buzz Aldrin and Einstein. Stephen Hawking has me beaten, though (EBS=8), as has Lawrence Krauss, with a remarkable EBS=7. Lawrence's achievement was the stimulus for my ...

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Posted on January 14, 2016

 Humour in Science  Renaming the Comet Lander  Terry Pratchett on Science  Game Theory is about people, not just mathematics. It needs a new name to reflect this.  Science quotes I: Piet Hein  The science of Uri Geller   Taking a jaundiced view: some skeptical quotes  Some skeptical thoughts about science and society  Some thoughts on rejection Toiling in the shadow of the corkscrew  The essential humanity of ...

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The real dangers of Australia

Posted on December 16, 2015

Many of our European friends have expressed apprehension at the idea of visiting Australia on account of the ferocious sharks, poisonous snakes, spiders and jellyfish, etc. But the real problems lie elsewhere: Some birds laugh at you: Others look sideways disapprovingly: Some spiders won't let you near the toilet roll: Others try to steal it: and some can even dance: They are all bastards though (classific...

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Where did “Rock-Paper-Scissors” originate? Well, Nature started it all.

Posted on December 9, 2015

I recently had an inquiry from a Russian website wanting to know where the game "Rock, Paper, Scissors" originated. Probably they asked me because I had written a best-selling book "Rock, Paper, Scissors: Game Theory in Everyday Life," which was in fact not about the game itself (that just made for a good title). Nevertheless, I had done some digging, and I was able to answer that non one knew about the human version (it may have originated ...

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Australian politicians need to understand how science can REALLY be made profitable

The Australian Government is seriously considering radical changes to research funding where the major criterion would be the potential applications of a project, rather than its scientific value and rigour. This crazy idea, so intuitively appealing to politicians, has long been shown to be without foundation (e.g. Sir John Cadogan's report at, but speaking truth to power seldom changes bull-headed ...

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Will Turnbull reverse the cuts?

Nov 4, 2015  Here is the text of an open letter (submitted to Sydney Morning Herald but unpublished) to Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, drafted by me on behalf of the Royal Society of New South Wales. In a recent speech, Turnbull promised to “invest in science and put it right at the centre of our national agenda”. We ask just what this means in practical terms. Will he reverse the recent savage cuts? We'll see.   P...

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Why we should make refugees welcome

Posted on November 4, 2015

November 4, 2015 My World View article “Avoid major disasters by welcoming minor change” has now been published in Nature (Vol.527, p.9). Here is the link: Here is a summary of the main points: The article focuses on the growing refugee crisis in Europe and elsewhere. A recent editorial in Nature (Vol.525, p.157) suggests that developed nations should ...

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