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Posted By Peter Bentley
I gave a talk for TESLA (our arts-science group at UCL) in November 2007. The topic is a common one for me - the nature of computation in biological or natural systems. If I ever get around to writing a sequel to Digital Biology it'll be on this kind of stuff. At the end I also talk a little about science communication in general. They've recently put a rather noisy recording of the talk online here:


Posted By Peter Bentley
I was rather surprised to come across an online leaflet written by the Centre for Career Development at Nottingham University. Surprised because much of the content seems to be taken directly from my book the PhD Application Handbook. Well they say imitation is the best form of flattery (I wonder if that applies to duplication). To be fair, they do acknowledge the book. So it's nice to have some fans out there. You can read the leaflet for yourself here:

Posted By Peter Bentley
Another day and another contract, this time for Portugal. We're all very excited by the international interest in The Undercover Scientist (or The Science of Mishaps as it may be called in some countries). Do the twin themes of mishaps and science apply across all cultures? Looks like it so far. The list of publishers to date includes:

UK (Random House)

USA (Rodale)

Taiwan (Commonweath Publishing)

Spain (Ariel, part of Planeta Group)

Italy (Rizzoli)

Portugal (Publicacoes Europa America)

Japan (Shincho sha)

Korea (GimmYoung)

Posted By Peter Bentley
An eagle-eyed ex-engineer has spotted a dodgy explanation in The Undercover Scientist. I trust this reader, for it's my Dad:

On pages 57 and 58 of the Undercover Scientist you refer to pistons connected to a camshaft. I think you meant crankshaft. The cams are the lozenge shaped bumps on the camshaft which operate the engine valves.

Yes, we somehow all managed to miss this one. The book should read: "Each push on the rim is a linear motion, and that is converted into a rotary motion by the hoop. Connect a piston to a crankpin (often connected to a crankshaft) and the piston rotates the crankpin, pushing it round and round." and later "Nevertheless, the principles of the engine remain exactly the same: fuel and air is injected into the cylinders and is ignited by sparks (produced by the spark plugs), the resulting pressure from the explosion moves the pistons, which pushes the crankshaft around, and through a series of gears, makes the wheels turn."

Future editions (and foreign versions) will have this amendment... Thanks Dad.

Posted By Peter Bentley
When I wrote The Undercover Scientist I (perhaps naively) never thought in a million years I would get questions like this... But today I did. Here's how I responded (part 1).

1) Ordinary people have long known that computers crash on deadline and cars break down in emergencies, while previous studies have shown the law, also called Sod's Law, is not a myth and toast really does fall buttered side down. But in 2004 a panel of experts (David Lewis, matematico Philip Obadya e Keelan Leyser) has provided the statistical rule for predicting the law of "anything that can go wrong, will go wrong" - or ((U+C+I) x (10- S))/20 x A x 1/(1-sin(F/10)).

So, do you think it is possible to break Murphy's Law?

The Undercover Scientist is about those everyday mishaps that happen without blame or fault. I use each mishap to open the door to scientific principles that explain our behaviour and the technology we use. I'm afraid there is no sound scientific evidence that shows Sod's Law or Murphy's Law is anything more than a misconception - toast does not have a tendency to fall in the way we do not want it to. Sometimes things go wrong when we're stressed and working to a tight deadline, but this is because we make mistakes and we inadvertently stress our technology until it fails - there are lots of examples of this in the book. However, there is certainly evidence to show that if you believe in such "laws" and your behaviour is affected by your own superstitious beliefs then the result will be as though such laws exist. Your superstitious beliefs cause you to act differently from normal and cause the very mishaps you are afraid of. Thus Murphy's Law is nothing more than a construct in your own mind - to break it, just don't believe in it.

2) Why do you chose this topic?

I am a scientist who is trying to show how exciting and interesting science really is. The whole purpose of the book is to show there is always a rational (and often fascinating, fun and exciting) explanation for all the everyday events that happen to us. It shows that superstition really has nothing to do with misfortune. What really counts is the physics, chemistry, biology that underlies us and our technology.

3) "Fortune is blind, but bad luck has perfect eyesight". Is it true?

It is only true if you make it so for yourself. Personally I am a strong believer that we make our own luck - if you want something good to happen, then push for it; if something happens that you don't like, then turn it into something positive by learning from it. Again, this is what The Undercover Scientist does - it provides fascinating and entertaining new knowledge from mishaps.