The great research swap


Transitioning into different research topics is like leaping from Halo to reality. Completely different terrains but some skills are similar. Image credit:


Changing research topic is a big challenge in research. A PhD is like being completely absorbed in particular online role-playing game where you know all about the allegiances of other players and the strengths and limitations of your character.

And then after the PhD, it’s expected that you side step from your PhD topic into a completely new topic. Much like launching into a whole new game where you don’t know the landscape nor what you have to work with to navigate the terrain. The whole process is disorientating and yet it’s absolutely essential.

Conquering a new world can be exciting and it’s great for boasting a new post doc’s CV. But organisational restructures can also leave experienced researchers with years of research suddenly shelved and a directive to tackle a whole new topic. This is where those that are most flexible in their research will survive.

Luckily there are some skills that are universal for all research topics.

The most obvious is how to conduct research. No matter what the topic, solid experimental design underpins everything in research. These skills are invaluable and can go anywhere. Much like a foldable bicycle.

Secondly, there are enough processes in research that any self-respecting scientist with OCD can use to cope when faced with a new project. Here’s a summary of some of the processes for conquering the new research topic:

  1. Scour the literature and get up to speed with the field. Definitely check out the latest review papers and follow the papers references there.
  2. Learn methods and practice them til confident of reproducible results.
  3. Design some experiments and get that science happening.
  4. Write up a paper. It’s like putting a flag up and staking your claim on the new topic.

One thing to remember is to keep tabs on the former topic just in case the wind changes and the old topic becomes new again. Writing a review paper is great motivation to keep up with the literature in that field. The additional citations that inevitably follow are just a bonus.

The shift in topic is can be invigorating when it’s planned and can be frightening when it isn’t. Happily, the new world can be conquered in a systematic way and, if successful, the skills of project transitions can be added to the list of transferable skills acquired in research.

Of course playing different online RPGs is sure to help as well.

Teleporting through the holidays


The wibbly wobbly timey wimey experience of the holiday period

Teleportation and time travel have ignited our imagination for over a century and yet, in so far as I know, neither technology currently exists. While we wait for science reality to catch up with science fiction, there is one way we can and do experience these phenomena, and that is over the holiday period.

Star Trek is the prime example of teleportation used as an effective mode of transport with more favourable outcomes than those depicted in, say, The Fly. My childhood of long car rides and my adult life of even longer plane rides have been plagued with teleportation fantasies.

H.G. Wells created a Time Machine for his intrepid protagonist to travel into the future. The younger version of me was never impressed by this. What is the point of having a time machine if you don’t go into the past to see dinosaurs? A waste. Like buying an expensive sports car just for driving around town.

Of course the car as a time machine in Back to the Future made perfect sense for traveling to places with both fuel and roads. The DeLorean may not cope in dinosaur times but I would be willing to give it a go.

Traveling through both time and space is a tantalizing prospect made famous in Doctor Who with the TARDIS. The possibilities of combining the two concepts in one clunky police box are seemingly endless and surely warrant further research.

Recently, teleportation research has yielded impressive results. Although so far this involves teleporting the state of a particle up to a few meters and not, for instance, me with my luggage to somewhere over the other side of the world. Useful for super-fast internet, not so much for avoiding airport lounges.

As for time travel, there is still much conjecture about whether or not it is even possible. But it is. Because every year at this time many people experience what could only be described as being teleported through time and space. They enter a time warp around December 24th and the next thing they know, it’s early January.

What happened during that between-time is never clear. Only fuzzy memories remain of being very, very full but still finding room for pudding, of being surrounded by lots of people who look vaguely familiar, and, at one point, there being a lot of pretty bright lights and a feeling of heartfelt love for whoever was standing next to them at that moment.

This is the first year for many years that I haven’t worked through the between-time and it’s been amazing. I need to document this time for future reference because certainly by next week it will feel as though I never left work. Which is kind of like traveling through time and space.

I think I’d prefer a TARDIS.

Before Paris: The humble beginnings of climate change research


Climate change wasn’t always this high-profile

While headlines are made about the official acknowledgement of human-induced climate change this week, more than 30 years ago it was just an odd result that a researcher observed amongst the reams of other data collected for a project. Here’s what might have happened sometime in those first years before “global warming” was established as more than just a crazy nutcase idea:

The researcher’s boss leaned back in his chair and frowned at his employee. “Well obviously you did the measurements wrong,” he said.

The researcher shook his head. “We checked the instrument calibration and the baseline. The nights have definitely been getting warmer over the past few years.”

“Then it’s most likely a sunspot or solar flare,” the boss said. The researcher drew a slow breath. He knew he should have waited til Thursday to tell him. The boss was always more receptive to new ideas on Thursdays.

“The nights are warming,” he said. “The days, not so much. Kind of thought solar activity might change daytime temperatures more.”

The boss sighed. “Natural anomaly then. It’s not like the temperature has never changed before. Write up your other results and don’t mention the temperature thing.”

That researcher did write up his other results but included a comment in the discussion section of the paper about the increasing temperatures. Another researcher somewhere else read the paper, found the comment which happily concurred with her findings and published her results, citing the first paper with a statement to the effect of “See? It’s not just me.”

Now, several decades on, we come to the epic Paris Agreement. It might not be perfect but it’s definitely a start. This is a triumph of thorough research and an ode to the persistence and perseverance of the researchers involved.

And so, for the people who made those original observations and recordings and noted it in peer-reviewed publications, and for all the other people who read the minor comment in those publications and made this the goal of their research, and for all the people who thought the whole thing was bollocks and set out to disprove it but accidentally found more evidence for it, this is victory is yours. Kind of makes it all worthwhile.

Fulfilling science fiction prophecy

Jetpacks are the most recent science fiction idea to become reality

This is a great week for science fiction. Jet packs, predicted in the 1960s to be the future of transport, have finally made an appearance – without leading to a Darwin award. Meanwhile a version of Dr Who’s sonic screwdriver is the next leap forward in brain cancer treatment.

Good science fiction is the forefront of great science research. It follows a logical series of true scientific developments and extrapolates them further to show what could be possible if research continued fully supported and well-funded.

The stories plant the ideas in the minds of scientists, non-scientists and, in particular, children who then grow up and ask the awkward question: Hang on, why aren’t there jet packs? And then devote years inventing one. It’s almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Touch screens, for example, were a science fiction invention. Everyone who saw Minority Report suddenly wanted to be able to move computer files by touching them. The movie simultaneously showed an idea and produced a market for it and now it exists. That’s great sci-fi. I’m still waiting for one of the airline companies to see the market value in teleportation and throw more money at that.

Science fiction also predicts less positive scenarios, most notably total human annihilation by machines with artificial intelligence. But I think the Terminator movies are misguided. The war with machines will not start with military weapons systems. It will start with smart TVs and it has already begun. My smart TV can now speak to my smart phone and I’m sure they’re plotting against me. While not technically smart, my fridge is of the same brand and will probably supply the muscle for the smart electronics takeover bid.

Now to invent a Dr Who-based time machine to travel back to before the first Terminator movie and tell James Cameron about the smart-TV-world-domination plot. It could be our only hope.

Avoiding assumptions and scientific faux pas

Never confuse Star Trek fans with Star Wars fans

The first rule of science is ‘question everything, assume nothing’. Even if your results turn out exactly as you hypothesized, it is still not real until it has been repeated in triplicate with all controls accounted for. This basic principle seems to be alone in the world of science.

Out in the real world, the idea of ‘question everything’ is certainly not applied. This obviously includes much of the information gleaned from the internet and also those quirky one line “did you know?” pseudo-facts in magazines or drink bottles.

It is also surprisingly rare in everyday social interactions. I overheard a conversation recently:

“You’re a scientist,” said Person A to Person B, “so you like Star Trek, right?” An awkward silence ensued, much like after asking a woman when the baby is due without first establishing that she is pregnant. Or being asked which part of England you’re from when you are actually Australian. Or vice versa.

Person B scoffed at the idea. And then changed the subject to rave about the upcoming Star Wars movie.

A tip for non-science fiction aficionados: Never make assumptions about a person’s science fiction preferences. It will end badly. Usually with a Jedi mind trick, a Vulcan nerve pinch or, worse, a lengthy explanation as to why one is infinitely better than the other.*

Many people also make assumptions about scientists themselves. On one hand they assume scientists know everything and on the other they presume scientist have not even thought to check the basics.

I’ve had many fascinating conversations with non-scientists that included topics like “You’re a scientist so you should know this…” No, I’m an organic chemist not a zoologist, sorry. Or “It’s not global warming it’s just solar activity…” Because climate scientists didn’t think to check that first.

And this old gem that keeps resurfacing: “NASA scientists spent a billion dollars to make a pen that writes in space and they could have just used a pencil!” Except that pencils can be hazardous in zero-gravity, particularly when surrounded by lots of expensive equipment.

Avoiding assumptions and questioning everything is a first line of defense against the spread of myths and misinformation. And it’s a good way to avoid sci-fi nerd rage.

*For the record, I’m a huge fan of both and will talk a lot about them at every opportunity.

Science fiction vs reality

Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads. Just make sure there’s high-speed internet.

The future was bright and efficient. Hover boards and flying cars the norm and pollution something only old people reminisced about. At least that’s was the plan. The discrepancy between science fiction and reality has never been so acute as on the day a young Marty McFly was supposed to come flying in from the past in a DeLorean to set the future right. But despite this crippling disappointment, science and technology have come a long way in the past 30 years.

The remarkable boom of the digital age has seen computers converted from glorified 1985 calculators to sleek 2015 machines that are indispensable. A day without food? No problem. A whole day without FaceBook? Traumatizing.

Humans are after all social animals and anything that can connect us faster to other humans, and more humans, is going to be taken up with relish. Mobile phones took the world by storm but that still relied on talking to one person at a time. Text messaging could cover more ground in shorter amounts of time than a phone call and email could go further, wider and longer. Being able to email using a mobile phone was always going to be a winning combination.

Video calls are real. Wall-sized TVs are real. Paying for goods by waving a card in the general direction of the card-reader or just by pressing a button on a computer, also real. Listening to music on the go for hours on end without having to carry a CD case is just a bonus.

This is also a golden age of medical miracles. The level of understanding of the causes of cancers and how to detect and treat them has grown exponentially in the past 30 years. Likewise understanding and treatment for HIV, Parkinson’s disease and malaria.

We may not have everything predicted by 1980s sci-fi stories but we have come a long way. And even I have to admit that a hover board that can go across water is not as awesome as, say, early cancer detection. Or even FaceBook.

It would still be cool, though.