Tag Archives: science

Devaluing novelty: not all that glitters is gold

My regular readers will have recognised the novel nature of a blog that seeks, in a unique way, to present promising engineering ideas in a favourable and robust manner.  Actually, I hope my regular readers will recognise this opening sentence as completely uncharacteristic.  It was a blatant effort on my part to include the five words, underlined, with positive meanings that are most used in the titles and abstracts of articles published in clinical research and the life sciences.  A recent survey of more than 100,000 articles showed the prevalence of these words, with them being used significantly more in articles in which the first or last authors were male compared to those in which the first and last authors were female.  In other words, female authors are significantly less likely to describe their research findings in these positive terms and this influences the subsequent citations of their work and probably their prospects for research funding and advancement.  Sunday was International Women’s Day and, hence this is an appropriate week for everyone responsible for decisions about research to be conscious of this trend.  They should also be aware that the use of these positive words has increased in clinical and life sciences research by around 150% in the fifteen years to 2017.  In other words, the modesty of researchers has declined and they are more likely to describe their results as ‘novel’; however, I think it is unlikely that the results are any more novel than typical results published 20 years.  Of course, like most researchers, I always think my last breakthrough is the most exciting yet but many of us have been letting that enthusiasm lead us to exaggerate its novelty and value.

Source: Lerchenmueller MJ, Sorensen O & Jena AB, Gender differences in now scientists present the importance of their research: observational study, BMJ, 367:16573, 2019.

The Stone Raft adrift in the Atlantic Ocean

I spent most of last week at the European Union’s Joint Research Centre in Ispra, Italy.  I have been collaborating with the scientists in  the European Union Reference Laboratory for alternatives to animal testing [EURL ECVAM].  We have been working together on tracking nanoparticles and, more recently, on the validity and credibility of models.  Last week I was there to participate in a workshop on Validation and Acceptance of Artificial Intelligence Models in Health.  I presented our work on the credibility matrix and on a set of factors that we have developed for establishing trust in a model and its predictions. I left the JRC on Friday evening and slipped back in the UK just before she left the Europe Union.  The departure of the UK from Europe reminds me of a novel by José Saramago called ‘The Stone Raft‘ in which the Iberian penisula breaks off from the Europe mainland and drifts around the Atlantic ocean.  The bureaucrats in Europe have to run around dealing with the ensuing disruption while five people in Spain and Portugal are drawn together by surreal events on the stone raft adrift in the ocean.

Four requirements for consciousness

Max Tegmark, in his book Life 3.0 – being a human in the age of artificial intelligence, has taken a different approach to defining consciousness compared to those that I have discussed previously in this blog which were based on synchronous firing of assemblies of neurons [see, for example, ‘Digital hive mind‘ on November 30, 2016 or ‘Illusion of self‘ on February 1st, 2017] and on consciousness being an accumulation of sensory experiences [Is there a real ‘you’ or’I’? on March 6th, 2019].  In his book, Tegmark discusses systems based on artificial intelligence; however, the four principles or requirements for consciousness that he identifies could be applied to natural systems: (i) Storage – the system needs substantial information-storage capacity; (ii) Processing – the system must have substantial information-processing capacity; (iii) Independence – the system has substantial independence from the rest of the world; and (iv) Integration – the system cannot consist of nearly independent parts.  The last two requirements are relatively easy to apply; however, the definition of ‘substantial’ in the first two requirements is open to interpretation which leads to discussion of the size of neuronal assembly required for consciousness and whether the 500 million in an octopus might be sufficient [see ‘Intelligent aliens?‘ on January 16th, 2019].


Max Tegmark,  Life 3.0 – being a human in the age of artificial intelligence, Penguin Books, Random House, UK, 2018.

Image: Ollie the Octopus at the Ocean Lab, (Ceridwen CC BY-SA 2.0)


More laws of biology

Four years ago I wrote a post asking whether there were any fundamental laws of biology that are sufficiently general to apply beyond the context of life on Earth [‘Laws of biology?‘ on January 16th, 2016].  I suggested Dollo’s law that diversity and complexity increases in evolutionary systems; the Hardy-Weinberg law about allele and genotype frequencies remaining constant from generation to generation; and the Michaelis-Menten law governing enzymatic reactions.  Recently, I came across a simpler statement of the laws of biology proposed by Edward O.Wilson.  He states that the first law of biology is all entities and processes of life are obedient to the laws of physics and chemistry; and the second law is all evolution, beyond minor random perturbations due to high mutation rates and random fluctuations in the number of competing genes, is due to natural selection.  It seems likely that these simpler laws will be universally applicable; however, until we find evidence of extra-terrestrial life, they will remain untestable in a universal context unlike the laws of physics.


Edward O. Wilson, Letters to a Young Scientist, Liveright Pub. Co., NY, 2013.