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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 2).

4) Are you supersticious?

No. I am a scientist, so I require real evidence that something causes something else. When you apply the scientific method to most superstitions you find very little of substance. There are one or two exceptions - for example, walking under a ladder is, I suspect, more likely to expose you to danger of being hit by falling objects. But most are bad correlations between cause and effect that do not bear scrutiny. It is human nature to try and link one event with another, but science helps us discover what is really true and what is wishful thinking.

5) The Undercover Scientist has all the answers.... Now that you give to the people a scientific vision of the everyday mishaps…so the badluck exist?

Sometimes things don't go the way we want them to. You can call it bad luck, but this is life. We are often the cause of our own misfortune; sometimes it is random chance; sometimes it is caused by the malicious activities of a third party. But there is no mystical concept of luck - you cannot keep a bottle of good luck to drink when you're upset. If you want better luck, then you need to alter your own behaviour. The Undercover Scientist doesn't have all the answers (it would have to be a bigger book), but it does explain a huge number of interesting things that affect us and our technology, helping us to recover if things do go wrong, and helping to suggest ways of preventing future mishaps.

Posted By Peter Bentley
On July 9, 2007 I played "Dimbleby" to a debate in the Great Hall of the Natural History Museum. We'd invited Richard Dawkins, Steve Jones and Lewis Wolpert. (Richard did the foreword for my first book, Steve suggested I use his literary agent when I was writing Digital Biology- which I did, and Lewis collaborated with one of my PhD students). It was great fun, with our voices echoing out and reaching the ears of 600 people in the audience. The topic was evolution of compexity, and we covered a good range of topics. The occasion formed the keynote event for the Genetic and Evolutionary Computation Conference that I helped run at UCL at the same time. You can still download the audio or video of the whole event from here: aff/p. bentley/evodebate.html

Posted By Peter Bentley
For those readers of The Undercover Scientist who are wondering how the day was supposed to go, here's a clue for you. You wake up on Wednesday...

Posted By Peter Bentley
I had lunch with an editor a couple of years ago and we talked about marketing of books. He told me that in the UK two of the most influential people are Richard and Judy - presenters of a TV show that features a book club. While rather disappointing to hear that TV has such power over the world of books, I was flattered to receive a call from the producer of Richard and Judy this week. I don't suppose I'll make it onto their show (not sure how popular scientists are for such things) but it was nice that The Undercover Scientist generated this interest before it's even hit the shelves.

Posted By Peter Bentley
Reading this back I'm not sure I really answered this excellent question as thoroughly or clearly as I could have, but there you go. It's a reader's query and response from 2004:

I read Digital Biology a few years ago and there's one topic I keep revisiting as I can't seem to reconcile all of it's elements--swarm intelligence.

Your criteria for effective swarm intelligence were something along the lines of

1. Randomness of events

2. Positive feedback

3. Negative feedback

4. Disproportionate fluctuation

The first three items make perfect sense to me, but the fourth doesn't seem to be absolutely necessary--can't a bee hive or ant colony survive without it? I understood your lottery example but wasn't able to translate it into something absolutely necessary for a colony of ants. If you could explain the need for disproportionate fluctuation in the context of an ant hill perhaps it would drive the point home.

I really enjoyed your book. I picked it up because I hoped to learn about naturally occurring types of organization in the hopes that I could apply them to business. It was one of those rare instances when the book covered exactly what I'd hoped it would cover. An unintended benefit was that your book has helped me to think through business problems on a more elemental level in order to better isolate the problem from the symptoms.

Thanks and regards,

I believe the fourth one was "amplification of fluctuations" - and it was thought of by an Entomologist. You need to amplify the fluctuation in order for the "choice" to be made by the system. I agree that these can be stated more concisely, however - which is what I tried to do elsewhere in the book. Glad you enjoyed it :)