Tag Archives: science

Fancy a pint of science?

In September I am planning to initiate a new research project on the interaction of bacteria with cellular and hard surfaces.  It is in collaboration with Jude Curran and is co-funded by Unilever and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.  We have already used the optical method of caustics in a microscope to track and characterise the movement of synthetic nanoparticles as small as 3 nm in an array of biologically-relevant solutions [see ‘Nano biomechanical engineering of agent delivery to cells’ on December 15th, 2021].  We have also used the same technique to characterise and quantify the motion and growth of bacteria in solutions.  Now, we plan to use caustic signatures as a label-free tracking technology for pre-clinical testing of antimicrobial solutions and coatings.  We plan to start by considering binding and removal of viral particles and bacterial spores from hard and soft laundry surfaces using various bacterial species, including Staph aureus which is responsible for laundry malodour; before progressing to the interaction of bacteria with human oral and skin cell cultures.  We are in the process of recruiting a suitable PhD student so if you are interested or know someone who might be suitable then get in touch.  If you want to learn more about our tracking technology and fancy a pint of science, then join us in Liverpool in May for part of the world’s largest festival of public science.  I will be talking about ‘Revealing the invisible: real-time motion of virus particles’  on May 10th at 7.30pm on Leaf of Bold Street.

Liverpool Pint of Science programme

UK Pint of Science programme


Intelligent openness

Photo credit: Tom

As an engineer and an academic, my opinion as an expert is sought often informally but less frequently formally, perhaps because I am reluctant to offer the certainty and precision that is so often expected of experts and instead I tend to highlight the options and uncertainties [see ‘Forecasts and chimpanzees throwing darts’ on September 2nd 2020].  These options and uncertainties will likely change as more information and knowledge becomes available.  An expert, who changes their mind and cannot offer certainty and precision, tends not to be welcomed by society, and in particular the media, who want simple statements and explanations.  One problem with offering certainty and precision as an expert is that it might appear you are part of a technocratic subset seeking to impose their values on the rest of society, as Mary O’Brien has argued.  The philosopher Douglas Walton has suggested that it is improper for experts to proffer their opinion when there is a naked assertion that the expert’s identity warrants acceptance of their opinion or argument.  Both O’Brien and Walton have argued that expert authority is legitimate only when it can be challenged, which is akin to Popper’s approach to the falsification of scientific theories – if it is not refutable then it is not science.  An expert’s authority should be acceptable only when it can be challenged and Onora O’Neill has argued that trustworthiness requires intelligent openness.  Intelligent openness means that the information being used by the expert is accessible and useable; the expert’s decision or argument is understandable (clearly explained in plain language) and assessable by someone with the time, expertise and access to the detail so that they can attempt to refute the expert’s statements.  In other words, experts need to be  transparent and science needs to be an open enterprise.


Burgman MA, Trusting judgements: how to get the best out of experts, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

Harford T, How to make the world add up: 10 rules for thinking differently about numbers, London: Bridge Street Press, 2020.

O’Brien M, Making better environmental decisions: an alternative to risk assessment, Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2000.

Walton D, Appeal to expert opinion: arguments from authority, University Park PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997.

Royal Society, Science as an open enterprise, 2012: https://royalsociety.org/topics-policy/projects/science-public-enterprise/report/

Ice bores and what they can tell us

Map of Greenland sheet showing depth of iceAbout forty years ago, I was lucky enough to be involved in organising a scientific expedition to North-East Greenland.  Our basecamp was on the Bersaerkerbrae Glacier in Scoresby Land, which at 72 degrees North is well within the Arctic Circle and forty years ago was only accessible in summer when the snow receded.  We measured ablation rates on the glacier [1], counted muskoxen in the surrounding landscape [2] [see ‘Reasons for publishing scientific papers‘ on April 21st 2021] and drilled boreholes in the ice of the glacier.  We performed mechanical tests on the ice cores obtained from different depths in the glacier and in various locations in order to assess the spatial distribution of the material properties of the ice in the glacier. This is important information for producing accurate simulations of the flow of the glacier, although our research did not extend to modelling the glacier.  We could also have used our ice cores to investigate the climatic history of the region.  The Greenland ice sheet contains an archive record of the climate on Earth for about the last half million years, stored in the snow and trapped air bubbles accumulated over that time period.  If the ice sheet melts then that unique record will be lost forever.

The thumbnail image is a map of the depth of ice in the Greenland ice sheet.  The map is about five years old and has a wide green fringe along the east coast.  Scoresby Land is the penisula to the north of the large fiord in the middle of the east coast.  In 1982, the edge of the ice sheet was about 80 miles from the Bersaerkerbrae Glacier, whereas today it is at least twice that distance because the ice sheet is receding.


[1] Patterson EA, 1984, A mathematical model for perched block formation. Journal of Glaciology. 30(106):296-301.

[2] Patterson EA, 1984, ‘Sightings of Muskoxen in Northern Scoresby Land, Greenland’, Arctic, 37(1): 61-63.

Image: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/b/b5/Greenland_ice_sheet_AMSL_thickness_map-en.svg/2000px-Greenland_ice_sheet_AMSL_thickness_map-en.svg.png

Where we are and what we have

Pie chart showing green house gas emissions by sectorIn his closing statement at COP26 in Glasgow earlier this month, António Guterres, the Secretary-General of the UN stated that ‘Science tells us that the absolute priority must be rapid, deep and sustained emissions reductions in this decade. Specifically – a 45% cut by 2030 compared to 2010 levels.’   About three-quarters of global green house gas emissions are carbon dioxide (30.4 billions tons in 2010 according to the IEA). A reduction in carbon emissions of 45% by 2030 would reduce this to 16.7 billion tons or an average of about 2 tons per person per year (tCO2/person/yr) allowing for the predicted 9% growth in the global population to 8.5 billion people by 2030. This requires the average resident of Asia, Europe and North America to reduce their carbon emissions to about a half, a quarter and a tenth respectively of their current levels (3.8, 7.6 & 17.6 tCO2/person/yr respectively, see the graphic below and ‘Two Earths‘ on August 13th, 2012).  These are massive reductions to achieve in a very short timescale, less than a decade.  Lots of people are talking about global and national targets; however, very few people have any idea at all about how to achieve the massive reductions in emissions being talked about at COP26 and elsewhere.  The graphic above shows global greenhouse gas emissions by sector with almost three-quarters arising from our use of energy to make stuff (energy use in industry: 24%), to move stuff and us (transport: 16%), and to use stuff and keep us comfortable (energy use in building: 17.5%).  Hence, to achieve the target reductions in emissions and prevent the temperature of the planet rising more than 1.5 degrees compared to pre-industrial levels, we need to stop making, buying, moving and consuming stuff.  We need to learn to live with our local climate because cooling and heating buildings consumes energy and heats the planet.  And, we need to use public transport, a bicycle or walk.  By the way, for stuff read all matter, materials, articles, i.e., everything!  We will need to be satisfied with where we are and what we have, to learn to love old but serviceable belongings [see ‘Loving the daily current of existence‘ on August 11th, 2021 and ‘Old is beautiful‘ on May 1st, 2013].

Infographic showing CO2 emission by region and wealth