2019 Week 29: Front Page News

Short version: I summarise and share thoughts on articles from the covers of current editions of high impact journals. I ran late at night and it was serene.

Long version:

Front Page Science

Human knowledge is vast, and discovering is more difficult than learning from others what was discovered before. This explanation of what a PhD is visualises that point. Scientists need to communicate with each other about their results, and do so by publishing articles collected and edited by journals. Today with journals available online it is rare to open a physical periodical rather than read individual articles digitally (or printed one by one). Those hard copy collections still exist, and necessarily they have a front cover. This week I looked up the covers of some high impact journals (see below), read the related article, and wrote down my thoughts.

Snooze Report
On the cover of Nature.
This paper studies sleep in Zebrafish. While we all sleep, it is a complicated process with many aspects still not understood. Zebrafish are a model organism, that is they can be used as a substitute for understanding processes in humans, and have been studied extensively. Zebrafish are known to sleep based on behavioural criteria (essentially they stop moving for a while for regular periods), but it is hard to compare Zebrafish sleep to humans (or mammals in general) in a more detailed way. This is because sleep is studied in humans by looking at electrical signals from the brain (via electroencephalograms or EEG), but fish do not have a similar part of the brain (the neocortex) where human sleep signals are recorded. The team behind this paper, mostly from Stanford, used a light microscope based method to look at Zebrafish brains while they slept, and discovered two sleep signatures that they call “slow bursting sleep” and “propagating wave sleep” that they claim to be similar to our “slow-wave sleep” and “rapid eye movement sleep“.

Artificial Muscles
On the cover of Science
Much of science and engineering aims to replicate nature, be it materials (the first plastics replaced natural materials like silk and ivory), phenomena (electric lighting replacing flames), or biological feats (aircraft allowing human flight). Being able to artificially produce the mechanical properties of muscle (fibres that can contract) is important for robotics and prosthetics that more accurately mimic what natural creatures can do. This group, mostly from MIT, have created fibres that can lift 650 times their weight, and withstand thousands of cycles.

African Killifishes
On the cover of Cell
The advances made in DNA sequencing accelerated rapidly, and whole genome sequencing is now routinely available to researchers. This research team studied the genetic code of 45 killifish species to better understand the relationship between genes and life span. Killifishes have a range of life spans due to species diversifying and adapting to different environments. Killifish with shorter lives tended to have more genetic code, including both more redundant code and more detrimental mutations.

Controlled patterning of stem cell cultures
On the cover of Nature Methods
Three key concepts underpin this paper: Stem cells are cells that can become other types of cells. Morphogens are chemicals that, through their distribution, influence how cells develop, and eventually leads to the organisation of different types of cells in complex organisms. Microfluidics is the process of handling very small amounts of liquid. Those three come together in this method that explains how using a microfluidic device to introduce morphogens in a gradient over stem cells alters the patterns that they develop.

Atomistic Simulations of Membrane Ion Channel Conduction, Gating, and Modulation
On the cover of ACS Chemical Reviews
Reviews are an intermediate type of publication between cutting edge research and established science found in textbooks. This paper covers computer simulations of membrane ion channels, and is a comprehensive 72 pages (excluding the 923 references). Membrane ion channels are important for electrical activity in biological systems, i.e. the nervous system. Computer simulations have become increasingly important in chemistry, made particularly famous in 2013.

A one-dimensional individual-based mechanical model of cell movement in heterogeneous tissues and its coarse-grained approximation
On the cover of Proceedings of the Royal Society A
My mathematical understanding is far from the frontiers of mathematical research, and so I don’t often read papers from mathematicians. This paper presents a model, that is a mathematical representation, for cell movement in tissue. The power of mathematics, and of models, is to be able to generalise from limited information. In this case the hope is a generalised model might inform a better understanding of disease.

Guiding spin waves in artificial antiferromagnets
On the cover of Nature nanotechnology
Spin is a fundamental property of subatomic particles, such as electrons. Magnetism is a directly observable consequence of spin, in a similar way to static electricity being a directly observable consequence of charge. We manipulate charge in conventional electronic devices, and spintronics aims to manipulate spin in a similar way. This paper describes spin-waves being controlled, and is a step towards more complex applications of spin.

Rapid Plant DNA Extraction
On the cover of ACS Nano
The paper describes a method for extracting the DNA from plants using a patch covered in hundreds of sub-millimeter needles. This reduces a multi hour chemical extraction to a few minutes work.

Nanopore metagenomics enables rapid clinical diagnosis of bacterial lower respiratory infection
On the cover of Nature biotechnology
Oxford Nanopore, like ONI, is a spin out of Oxford University. They develop a device for rapid and portable DNA sequencing. In this paper they apply that technology to diagnosing bacteria in respiratory infections. Conventional identification by growing the bacteria taken from a patient sample takes 2-3 days, whereas the Nanopore method could give results in a few hours.

Night Runs

Early this week I wanted a long run, but only had time to start at midnight. I decided to go for it, and found I really enjoyed the quiet streets. Particularly the lack of vehicle traffic meant I could run on the road. Even having the whole footpath to myself the alternating sloping driveways and flat footpath required attention, while the smooth asphalt gave me space to get lost in my thoughts. I had decided to run unplugged, without music or a podcast, and even turned off the backlight on my watch, setting the pace purely on feel. After the first few kilometres I found a rhythm and just listened to my foot fall, soaking in the serenity. An additional fun moment was running through some road works barricades, which gave me the impression of being on the course of a race.

Photos from the Week

2019 Week 27: Socratic method

Short version: This week I had a couple of students in the lab for work experience, and it reminded me how much I enjoy teaching. Some thoughts.

Long version:

Socratic Method

One of the joys of my education was being repeatedly challenged to answer questions that I didn’t know the answer to. I found this an incredibly powerful way to learn both information and problem solving skills. It requires capable teachers with time to be able to explore each student’s individual thinking, as well as confident students.

Students are used to being tested on content they ought to have learned, being praised for preparing and chastised for a lack of practice. Thus it can be disquieting for them to be confronted with a question they have not prepared for. Post-education this is not very useful when working in science, where questions need to be answered that have not been answered before.

A wonderful example of taking relatively common experiences and following a path of questions and answers is “Fun to imagine“, an armchair conversation with Richard Feynman.

Science through fresh eyes

There is an XKCD comic for many situations, and one such specific situation is that there will always be many people who have yet to learn something you take for granted. In the lab, my team and I get to take for granted the understanding of many scientific concepts. However, through the eyes of inexperienced students the mundane becomes new. This is easily seen as a weakness of the students, but it is also joyful to see tools and ideas I take for granted be seen as exciting and new.

A good example of this is Pendulum Waves, which was demonstrated at the Cowley Carnival (see below).

Confidence

If you play these games of asking and attempting to answer questions, often your guesses will be wrong. In order to persist and learn you must enjoy the game, and therefore you must be able to enjoy being wrong. CGP Grey summaries it well: “if you want to always be right, you have to always be prepared to change your mind”.

Photos from the Week

2019 Week 26: 6 Month Review

Short version: After attempting (and failing) to write a blog post each week for the past 6 months, I look back on those posts and reflect.

Long version:

Identity and Expectation

A realisation occurred to me whilst thinking about the unfinished drafts for this blog. Fitness, particularly competitive fitness, is not a core part of my identity, and so it does not threaten my ego to post slow times on parkrun. By being comfortable running slowly, I run more, and in running more, I run faster. Being comfortable with being a slow runner makes me a faster runner. The ability to understand difficult concepts, and to communicate effectively, is a core part of my identity. This means being unable to understand difficult concepts, and being unable to write well, does hurt my ego. If I am insecure about these aspects, I read fewer scientific papers, I write fewer blog posts, and the result is I do not improve in these areas. The lack of progress makes me more insecure, and a cycle of procrastination begins.

The solution, therefore, is to be comfortable with not understanding, or in the case of this blog, to be comfortable writing poorly. The purpose I have identified, in attempting to write each week rather than each time I have something interesting or insightful, is a need to practice writing regularly, not a need to demonstrate the skill of writing. To be able to write more regularly, I need to stay true to that purpose, and not be swayed my the desire to be interesting, insightful, or demonstrate a level of skill I have yet to achieve.

With that in mind I post this unfinished, and hope to take time when I am up to date to examine the first 25 posts of 2019, and identify what I have done well, and what I need to improve on, as I focus my efforts on more regular content in the 26 posts to come.

Posts I liked:

The short summaries of papers from Week 8 was fun to write, but regrettably shallow. Although not a weekly blog post, I was happy with my comprehensive first race report. Writing about diet and alcohol had a real effect in my life; it made it easier to hold myself to my decision in the face of perceived social pressure. I got stuck for a while trying to write about video games, but overcoming that was useful to me in understanding my relationship with that form of entertainment. Week 15’s Minimalism felt reasonably cohesive.

Posts I did not like:

The most common mistake I see in my writing is the use of unnecessarily complex sentences. Phrases like “much of the time” instead of “often”. I would guess the reasons for this are 1) a lack of consideration and technique, 2) attempting to be precise for fear of being misunderstood and 3) an affectation in order to appear intelligent. Ultimately the goal of writing is to communicate. To be succinct first requires the ideas themselves to be coherent, and testing my ideas by attempting to write about them has helped me think more clearly. In a limited time, some ideas never become coherent, and the resulting posts are much weaker. For example, in Week 21 I didn’t understand my own conclusions about marriage or Romania, and so I feel the writing suffered. The book report in Week 7 was never written, and I cannot help but feel a tinge of shame when I think about it.

Photos from the Week

2019 Week 25: Advice

Short version: Taking advice is not an easy skill to master. I ought to listen to the advice itself rather than assume its validity based on the person offering it.

Long version:

Advice

I have a bad habit when taking advice. I find it very difficult to listen when the advice comes from someone who does not follow that advice themselves. This is a sort of reverse authority bias, whereby I ignore good information that ought to be taken on it’s own merit. An intuitive example is the sporting one, a coach might study the tactics and strategy of a game, know their players and those of the opposition, the biomechanics of the body, and about nutrition and rehabilitation, and yet be themselves at a poor level of fitness. Thereby they might espouse accurate, useful, and ultimately critical advice, whilst being a terrible player themselves. Sport is also a good example of my bias at the group level, as often it takes skill in the activity to earn enough respect to be in a position to offer advice.

Further, I can find myself confronting the person giving me advice if I feel they are not being consistent to the underlying principle. This often comes across as confrontational, which is not how one should approach an offer of help (of which giving advice is a type). Even if it is not a direct confrontation, by challenging the person I distract myself away from considering the advice, and how it might address my own inadequacies. Seen from this perspective the motivation to react this way is obvious: it is much more comfortable to see someone elses weaknesses than our own. Conversely, once accepted and understood, it is only our own weaknesses that we are able to correct.

Confidence vs. Persistence

I am learning from the beginners rowing course, that while being confident is helpful (it prevents unnecessary hesitation, lowers stress, and makes the whole process more enjoyable), persistence (actual time practicing a skill, making it automatic) helps more.

Photos from the Week

2019 Week 18: Allotments

Short version: This week ONI volunteered around Oxford to celebrate 3 years since being founded, and as part of that I worked on an allotment for the first time.

Long version:

The Children’s Allotment

On the 1st of May ONI celebrated its third “Oniversary”, and with corporate social responsibility in mind we decided to volunteer our time on projects around Oxford that could use some extra hands. I was tasked with leading a team to help The Children’s Allotment clear an abandoned plant nursery on the site of Oxford’s East Ward Allotments. My first response to the exercise was sceptical, but the result was an inspiring and enjoyable day, with some satisfyingly useful results. Together we worked up a sweat, collected a few scrapes and scratches, and had our shoes filled with earth, but ultimately managed to clear the entire area of rubbish and overgrown brambles. The surprise and joy of the Children’s Allotment team, and their heartfelt thanks, left us all feeling proud at what we had achieved.

When working with a group of people every day, it becomes easy to take for granted their consistently positive qualities, and I come to take for granted the work ethic of my incredible colleagues. “ONIees” are quick to get into their work and see it through with discipline and vigour. Old and young, tall and short, experienced gardeners and those who had never kept a houseplant, all promptly donned a pair of gardening gloves and got to digging, cutting, clearing, and moving ceaselessly until the job was done.

Photos from the Week

2019 Week 12: Video Games

Short version: Playing video games has been a formative experience for me, which makes it a complicated topic to write about. Also: I ran a marathon this week.

Long version:

Introduction:

I have spent hundred of hours immersed in virtual worlds, which is a fairly common but not universal experience. More recently I have not been playing games at all. It was only on trying to write this that I realised this fairly radical shift has been largely unexamined by me.

This post started from a dinner conversation where I found myself in an extended monologue trying to convey the variety of experiences accessible through video games to friends who were unfamiliar. These past weeks I’ve discovered the sheer volume of ideas I’d like to share about video games, and so I suspect this will be a topic I will need to revisit. The History of Video Games wikipedia page is over 16,000 words and barely mentions a specific title.

What are video games?

An attempt at definition would be a good place to start. Format seems the most obvious identifying feature: video games are games which, in some way, involve interaction with electronically generated video. In a world where powerful handheld computers are ubiquitous, I assume most people have had some interaction with video games. It is a broad category, with a range of experiences from digital versions of traditional board games and card games to much more complex virtual worlds.

Why I find it so hard to write about video games:

Ultimately, I struggle to feel my writing does justice to the complexity of the experience of playing video games. I tried formally studying video games by taking a course during my undergraduate years. It was helpful, but it was also ultimately unsatisfying. A large part of this were flaws in my attitude, an undeserved intellectual arrogance I have yet to fully overcome. Still, I feel that a stigma associated with video games as a form of art is that they are simplistic, culturally insignificant in the same way as popular children’s fiction might be. This conflicts with my personal experience with video games as being emotionally and artistically significant.

Why I play video games:

Stimulation
From the rapid flashing of a classic arcade game to the cinematography of a more plot driven experience, video games captivate. Most obviously this is observed in the iphone becoming a pocket sized babysitter to modern parents. Video games hold attention, and particularly fast paced shooters and platformers provide excitement and speed.

Puzzles, Strategy, and Problem Solving
Strategy games like Civilisation, Total War, and Age of Empires fill the gap between chess and history, asking players to take control of armies, factions, or even nations. Games like Portal provide more fast paced puzzle solving from a first person perspective. Overall these games give a more cerebral satisfaction: you feel smart when you win.

Narrative
Later editions of games like Final Fantasy have been accused of containing more non-interactive video than actual gameplay. Games like Bioware’s Mass Effect and Dragon Age contain dozens of hours of voice acting. While role playing games are designed to tell a story, some first person shooters such as Bioshock Infinite and Half Life have also elicited strong emotions.

Escapism, Perfectionism, Rules
Beyond these, video games provide worlds to lose yourself in. While a book or a TV show often leaves the audience dreaming about an alternate universe, it does not fully immerse you in the same way as a video game can. Dangerously, it is possible to play a game perfectly. Ultimately these worlds are constructed, and save points and the limits of the medium make perfection possible in a game in a way it cannot be in reality. This is perhaps the distinction between the virtual and the real that I have most struggled with.

Some things I want to share about gaming other than games:

The Smash Brothers Documentary: a 4 hour insight into the competitive community around the Nintendo game Super Smash Bros. Melee.

ASU English Professor James Paul Gee talks about video games and a theory of learning.

There Will Be Brawl, a gritty film noir series based in the Super Smash Bros universe.

Pure Pwnage a mocumentary about gaming with plenty of truth.

Some significant video games:

Starcraft: a real time strategy game, hugely influential in esports, notably being broadcast on television in South Korea to millions of fans.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic: A highly acclaimed role playing game.

Counter-Strike: an extremely popular first person shooter.

Also this list of games ‘included on at least six separate “best/greatest of all time” lists’.

Photos from the Week

2019 Week 11: Communication

Short version: This week is pretty heavy on personal reflection. I have struggled to keep in regular contact with friends, but recently have been improving. Some other thoughts on communicating, social media, and socialising in general.

Long version:

Personal Reflection

Broadly, my priorities in life are
1. Maintaining good mental and physical health,
2. Relationships,
3. Science (my academic and career pursuits), and
4. Hobbies.
Relationships are the area where I struggle most to allocate time effectively.

Having worked to stop setting unrealistic expectations in my academic pursuits, I can see the same harmful perfectionist tendencies in how I approach my relationships. I want all my interactions to be substantive, prompt, and to take up no time. This is simply not possible. Quick responses are necessarily glib. Writing something meaningful takes time and so cannot be prompt. This inherent time investment provides an excuse to delay, which breeds guilt at leaving messages piling up in a variety of inboxes. Then avoiding this uncomfortable guilt leads to avoiding the messages that ought to be a source of joy. In turn this means I set higher expectations on what I might communicate to make up for the ever growing delays. Occasionally I do set time for keeping in touch where longer phone calls or letters are produced, but these sporadic moments can end up being several months apart.

Not being able to exercise control over who I keep in touch with and when, I fall prey to biasing proximate interactions, even if they are less significant to me. This is exacerbated by finding it hard to say no, and generally being hungry for appreciation and approval. Thus these happenstance interactions can fulfil some of my social needs, whilst leading me to neglect people I would better enjoy sharing time with.

This week I’ve been reaching out to old friends, and it has been an anxious but rewarding experience. I’ve found with the people I’m closest to, months or even years go by and on meeting again we fall back into the same conversational flow as if it had only been a handful of days. I’d like to think this is the nature of strong relationships, though it is possible the causation is reversed; being poor at keeping in touch it is only people who hold relationships this way that I am able to successfully keep as friends. I do think that there is some underlying connection that is a source of mutual happiness and kinship, even if left dormant for an extensive period.

In short, these days it is rare that my truly closest friends are physically closest to me, and that has really revealed how important it is to take control of my social interactions. I think it’s worth noting as well that I’ve made very fulfilling connections here in Oxford, and that whilst my thinking can often be based around binary extremes, allowing circumstance to lead to making new friends is also incredibly rewarding.

Social Media

Purpose:
Facebook’s mission statement reads “Founded in 2004, Facebook’s mission is to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together. People use Facebook to stay connected with friends and family, to discover what’s going on in the world, and to share and express what matters to them.” The world’s most popular social networking site has not handled its user’s data particularly well. I would intuit that with advertising as the main source of revenue for facebook, their internal focus is to get users to spend more time on the platform. That clash of purposes has become more clear as regulators become increasingly skeptical of tech giants, but I think there is also a clash of purposes in the minds of users, and therein lies the source of so much social media related unhappiness.

Addiction:
This week Casey Neistat “quit” social media as he found “an hour and forty six minutes a day … a significant amount of my day is spent on that mindless scrolling”. I certainly have shared that sentiment, mostly regarding reddit. Endless scrolling is a bad habit I’ve mostly overcome, by taking note to myself of why I am looking at my phone or PC before I use it, and then to only use it for that purpose and put it away. Ultimately, as much as reddit can feed my curiosity, entertain me, and create a sense of community through comments, it is simply an aggregator of content that I would be better consuming from the source.

Blogging

This blog began as a way to provide insight into me for prospective employers or academic mentors. Having happily found those relationships at ONI, it seems to have morphed into my place to share thoughts.

Keep in touch!

If this (or any one of my blog posts) sparks a thought you’d like to share, or if you think I’ve got something terribly wrong, or if you think there’s something I need to read/watch/listen to; start a conversation! You can leave a comment when viewing an individual post by clicking on the title of the post (I realise this is not at all intuitive and will think about a better way to make comments accessible). You could write me an email, or find me on facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, or just find me and say hi!

Photos from the Week

Spring is bringing flowers to Oxford’s streets. I bought some cheese.

2019 Week 10: Fitness in Science

Short version: I grew up thinking science-y people weren’t fit, but there is plenty of fitness in science, and scientific reasons to keep fit. I share some thoughts on anatomy, metrics, protein powder, and astronauts.

Long version:

Personal Observations

I remember thinking of exercise as inherently a waste of time; why would you ever want to run in circles and just end up at the same place? I’m sure this was in part informed by the media I consumed growing up; portraying the stereotypical nerd as being interested in mathematics, science, technology, along with a lack of physical fitness (also, in retrospect, portraying very fit people as not particularly bright). I identified with those archetypes and spurned exercise through much of school, as did many of my peers. It was later in life that I realised improving cardiovascular endurance was important to health. Starting to run I discovered the joy of Runner’s High. A competitive mindset and an internship in an anti-doping laboratory led me to build regular exercise into my routine, something I’ve enjoyed maintaining for the past few years.

Athletes’ Anatomy

Athletes setting world records are obviously different from the norm. Skill, dedication, talent, training, and genetics all contribute. I find conversations about athletes success tend to drift towards the genetic element, perhaps the intrigue is due to the allure of quantifying potential, or perhaps it provides a comforting fatalism for the undertrained. Most likely it is interesting simply because it is poorly understood compared with the simplicity of regular training or perceptible skill.

David Epstein gave a TED talk in 2014 where he shared a number of facts about the nature of athletes’ physicality. It particularly stood out to me that a transition in sport occurred (in parallel with the rise of broadcast media) from favouring a generalist body type of average proportions, to a plurality of extremes. One of the most memorable statistics is that Hicham El Guerrouj and Michael Phelps, who differ in height by 17 cm, have the same length legs (running advantages longer legs proportional to height, whereas swimming is the opposite). These characteristics are difficult to change: no amount of training will allow these two to exchange their body type. Training can however alter different aspects of the body to similar extremes.

Physiological adaptations from training can be as radical as the size difference between NBA basketball players and Olympic gymnasts. Specifically, athletes’ hearts really are significantly bigger than those of the untrained population (particularly endurance athletes). The body responds to stress, and the process of repeated exertion to influence adaptations that increase performance for a given activity is the basis of all training. When I worked in anti-doping an office legend described a cycling team that, in the days before blood doping was banned or effectively enforced, would need to sleep with heart rate monitors that would wake them if their heart rate got too low for fear of their hearts stopping altogether.

Marathon Times and Personal Metrics

I’m pretty motivated by quantifiable goals. Either arbitrary times (usually round numbers) or achieving a certain relative performance (e.g. placing in the top 1%). This paper examining marathon finishing times suggests I’m not alone. Times tend to bunch below “whole numbers” such as 3 hours and 4 hours, as well as smaller bunching observed across 5 minute increments, as people dig a little deeper to get below their goal times.

Links:
More statistics on half marathons and marathons. BAA Marathon and Half-Marathon results with the code shown. (I would like to be able to code informative charts like this.)

Protein Powder

The literature suggests that, when combined with training, protein supplementation increases gains in strength. I find that protein powder is a convenient way to add protein to my diet, particularly as a vegetarian. The NHS points out that the same benefits of protein powder can be achieved from other protein-rich foods, and that the lack of vitamins and nutrients of protein powder compare to a balanced meal make it a poor replacement for meals. It also recommends not exceeding intakes of 111 g per day for men or 90 g for women, which more or less concurs with the BMJ’s study suggesting the benefits of protein supplementation cease after 1.62 g/kg/day i.e. 120 g for a 75 kg person.

Importantly from an environmental perspective, looking at the World Resources Institute protein scorecard I wrote about in Week 4, dairy (from which whey protein is sourced) has the third highest impact, more than chicken and pork. Fortunately vegetable sources (i.e. pea protein) has a much lower footprint than conventional animal sources and pea protein is just as effective as whey protein in producing additional muscle growth.

That all said, there are good reasons to be skeptical of any benefit of supplementation at all beyond a healthy balanced diet. Trying to define a healthy balanced diet though could easily be several papers (or blog posts) by itself.

NASA Twin Study

I am eagerly awaiting the release of the integrated paper covering the NASA Twin Study. I suspect this will be the most intensive series of measurements made of any individual for some time. A brief summary by the Scientific American.

Photos from the Week: Solid water.

In the first photo, unusually clean ice traps dissolved gasses as they are forced out of solution. The second and third photos show Oxford’s spring weather variation.

2019 Week 9: Optimisation and Rowing

Short version: Life is full of metrics, and applying optimisation is useful, but be mindful of why not merely the how. Rowing is big in Oxford.

Long version:

Optimisation:

I can be a little obsessive about optimisation. I think it comes from doing a lot of mathematics. In the upcoming book The Metric Society, Steffen Mau describes a world where increasingly scores can be assigned to all aspects of life. I would guess the most common metrics people are concerned with are their bank balance and their weight, usually trying to maximise one and minimise the other. In everyday life I often find myself crunching numbers at the supermarket, aspiring to shave seconds off my running pace, cramming one extra experimental condition into the day. Is optimisation ultimately worth aspiring to? I’ve been reminded by friends this week that life isn’t always an optimisation problem. Optimisation can help me get faster, or spend more time at an art gallery, but it can’t tell me which one would make me happier, or is a more worthy way to spend time. I think it is important that I remember the ever growing pool of metrics are tools, rather than ends in themselves. More on this another week.

Rowing: Torpids 2019

This week the Isis in Oxford has been busy with the shouts and splashing of students rowing races. Oxford is relatively famous for its rowing. The Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge along the Thames attracted between 250,000 and 400,000 spectators in 2017. However unlike that race, or in Olympic rowing, the boats in this week’s races (known as Torpids) do not compete in parallel, but rather line up in sequence and chase one another.

Introduction to bumps racing:
Oxford is made up of many colleges which compete in, amongst other things, rowing. Since the main river through Oxford is narrow, and the race is contested by many boats (73 men’s boats and 61 women’s boats this week), it is not possible to race side by side. Instead they compete in divisions of 12 boats (13 boats per race including the top boat of the next lower division), with each boat starting simultaneously but separated by intervals of 130 feet. The aim of the first boat is to finish the course without being “bumped” by a boat further down the sequence, whilst all other boats are aiming to catch the next boat ahead. In Torpids specifically, once you “bump” (by overtaking, making physical contact, or the boat in front conceding) you leave the race, whilst the boat that has been bumped carries on. This protects the boat that achieved a bump from then being bumped in that race, even if the boat immediately behind would have eventually (or imminently) caught it. How this plays out is that in each race a boat usually only maintains its rank (known as rowing over), moves up one position (bumping), or moves down one position (is bumped), and so only the top four seeded boats meaningfully contest the position of top ranked boat (known as “head of the river”). Getting a bump on each of the four days is nearly always the best performance a crew can hope for, and is rewarded by “blades” (oars decorated with the names of the crew) being earned. Since a boat that has been bumped carries on rowing, it is possible to be bumped multiple times, and this is reflected in some pretty significant drops (e.g. Pembroke 2nd boat falling 8 places on the last day of racing). Further complicating the results calculations is that a boat that is bumped can continue on to bump, which is the only circumstance where a boat can gain multiple places. This creates the incredibly unlikely possibility that a boat can rise from the bottom of it’s division (the 13th boat) to the top (1st) in one race: only achieved by each boat bumping the one in front in the specific sequence of reverse order; 13 bumping 12, 12 bumping 11, and so on until having been bumped by 3, 2 then bumps 1. This would result in the boats then being ordered in reverse order to their starting order. Assuming then performances consistent with that first race, all boats would then proceed to row over (finish the course without being bumped). Notably this system of racing strongly encourages starting as hard as possible to catch the boat in front as early as possible.

Notable Performances of Torpids 2019:
Teddy Hall Men’s 1st boat were the highest seeded crew to get blades, gaining four places in Division 1, whilst GTC Women’s 1st boat also got blades in division 1, with an even more impressive 5 places gain. Brasenose Men’s 1st boat gained the most places on their path to blades at 7, while Hertford Men’s 2nd boat had the biggest fall of an impressive 14 places.

More details:
You can see the full results of Topids 2019 here. The full Rules of Racing are here. St Hugh’s Boat Club provide a Glossary of Rowing Terms here.

Upcoming Rowing Events:
Oxford and Cambridge compete again in London on Sunday 7th April 2019. Bumps are next being raced in Oxford on 29th May to 1st June 2019.

Other Rowing Stuff:
Australian Rowers Eat 25-30 MJ per day, British Rowing, Rowing Australia, RowingNZ,US Rowing.

Photos from the Week

2019 Week 6: Happy Chinese New Year

Short version: Writing accurately about science takes time, but a few bits to push in that direction. 新年快乐!

Long version:

Writing About Science

I’ve noticed a lack of scientific content in my blog. Usually the week’s post is in the back of my mind throughout the week with a few notes in Google Keep. This week I started out early with a list of topics I’d like touch on, or even expand into, but by Sunday with relatively little progress and wanting to cover them in reasonable depth I’ve culled back significantly. At the moment my main motivation week to week in writing is to practice writing publicly, building confidence and prompting coherency in my thoughts. I would like to share insight, but presenting summaries of scientific work on interesting topics can very quickly grow into a lengthy task (e.g. Review Articles). Also, working full time in scientific research, often my weekend reading drifts into other fields, which then leads to less scientific blog writing.

Chinese New Year

新年快乐!(Happy Chinese New Year!) It is the year of the pig.

Some Hopefully Useful Scientific Content

Stuff I read this week

There is an annual report into happiness. Nature celebrates women behind the periodic table. Google is developing a timber high rise in Toronto. Economic downturn improves health (particularly smoking and obesity). NHS has some simple to follow gym-free workouts particularly neck, back, and knee. Drones being used to poison rats on the Galapagos, possibly targeting Possums in New Zealand next.

A thought on Consumerism

My current context is filled with incentives to buy more stuff. One of the photos from the week is of a particularly expensive sports car that I passed on a run, and I feel that in sharing it I am participating in a culture that causes us to covet impractical luxuries. After all, given speed limits and traffic exist, it’s unclear what the purpose of owning a super car is beyond conspicuous consumption. That said, there is an aesthetic pleasure to be taken from such things.

Photos from the Week