A tool to visualise the scientific literature

I spent an enjoyable couple of days last week in the beautiful Wellcome Trust taking part in a data/text mining workshop run by The Content Mine.

The idea behind their project is to develop tools that help scientists and other interested sorts pull data from published articles, potentially on a large scale. If you want to learn more, all their presentations are online, as are the materials from the Wellcome workshop.

The second day was a hackday. For this, my team wanted to build on the ContentMine tools to create something that helps you explore the scientific literature and find connections between papers you might not otherwise have found. We thought it would work something like this:
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New paper about how sibling competition and mortality risks affect birth intervals

My very first contribution to the collected sum of human knowledge has just been published in the Journal of Evolutionary Biology. The paper is called: “A Dynamic Framework for the Study of Optimal Birth Intervals Reveals the Importance of Sibling Competition and Mortality Risks” and you can read it online or download a PDF. I’ll talk about the main results in this post.

paper header 2
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Peter Grindrod’s 10 Miles of Mars

Way back in 2013, I interviewed Dr Peter Grindrod for UCL’s student magazine, Pi. Dr Grindrod is a planetary scientist who also puts a lot of time into outreach activities. Last year, he curated a photography exhibition at UCL called 10 Miles of Mars — a huge Martian panorama.

An edited version appears in the magazine (you can read it on page 24 of the online magazine). Here is the full interview.

10 Miles of Mars (source: Londonist)

10 Miles of Mars (source: Londonist)

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Daniel Kahneman on criticism within science

If you visit a courtroom you will observe that lawyers apply two styles of criticism: to demolish a case they raise doubts about the strongest arguments that favour it; to discredit a witness, they focus on the weakest part of the testimony. The focus on weaknesses is also normal in political debates. I do not believe it is appropriate in scientific controversies, but I have come to accept as a fact of life that the norms of debate in the social sciences do not prohibit the political style of arguments, especially when large issues are at stake—and the prevalence of bias in human judgment is a larger issue.

—Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (p.165)

Rhyming piglets

A rhyming abstract! Ignoring the wobbly scansion, it is a Good Thing this exists. (Thank you to Dr David Lawson for pointing this out.)

From “Armed sibling rivalry among suckling piglets” by David Fraser and B. K. Thompson (from Agriculture Canada)

A piglet’s most precious possession
Is the teat that he fattens his flesh on.
He fights for his teat with tenacity
Against any sibling’s audacity.
The piglet, to arm for this mission,
Is born with a warlike dentition
Of eight tiny tusks, sharp as sabres,
Which help in impressing the neighbors;
But to render these weapons less harrowing,
Most farmers remove them at farrowing.
We studied pig sisters and brothers
When some had their teeth, but not others.
We found that when siblings aren’t many,
The weapons help little if any,
But when there are many per litter,
The teeth help their owners grow fitter.
But how did selection begin
To make weapons to use against kin?

Science poems: Pi by Wislawa Szymborska

Breaking through the anaesthetic of familiarity is what poets do best. It is their business. But poets, too many of them and for too long, have overlooked the goldmine of inspiration offered by science.
– Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow

Richard Dawkins is right, but not completely. I agree with him, but only so far. As a human who loves science and loves poetry, I would love to see the two married more often. Eternal. Civil. Tempestuous. Shotgun.

To kick things off, something mathematical, irrational:

by Wislawa Szymborska

The admirable number pi:
three point one four one.
All the following digits are also initial,
five nine two because it never ends.
It can’t be comprehended six five three five at a glance,
eight nine by calculation,
seven nine or imagination,
not even three two three eight by wit, that is, by comparison
four six to anything else
two six four three in the world.
The longest snake on earth calls it quits at about forty feet.
Likewise, snakes of myth and legend, though they may hold out a bit longer.
The pageant of digits comprising the number pi
doesn’t stop at the page’s edge.
It goes on across the table, through the air,
over a wall, a leaf, a bird’s nest, clouds, straight into the sky,
through all the bottomless, bloated heavens.
Oh how brief – a mouse tail, a pigtail – is the tail of a comet!
How feeble the star’s ray, bent by bumping up against space!
While here we have two three fifteen three hundred nineteen
my phone number your shirt size the year
nineteen hundred and seventy-three the sixth floor
the number of inhabitants sixty-five cents
hip measurement two fingers a charade, a code,
in which we find hail to thee, blithe spirit, bird thou never wert
alongside ladies and gentlemen, no cause for alarm,
as well as heaven and earth shall pass away,
but not the number pi, oh no, nothing doing,
it keeps right on with its rather remarkable five,
its uncommonly fine eight,
its far from final seven,
nudging, always nudging a sluggish eternity
to continue.