Why You Should Love Wasps

https://i1.wp.com/www.goodriddancepestservices.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/wasp.jpgRecently a member of the public wrote to the Guardian newspaper to ask other readers to propose species that were, from an ecological point of view ‘useless’. That is, their removal would not produce any large changes to the abundance of other species or alter any biogeochemical cycles. Can you guess which species they chose to illustrate this question with? A wasp. A German Wasp (Vespula germanica), which along with the Common Wasp (Vespula vulgaris), stinging nettles and dog dirt are the only appreciable natural hazards that the British Isles possess. Like many other species of the order Hymenoptera, these insects have modified ovipositors that no longer lay eggs but sting. The thing is, whereas bees either make honey or look fluffy and bumbling, these black and yellow wasps seem to do nothing but ruin whatever weather passes for a British summer by pestering picnics and raiding barbecues. Continue reading

New CS4 website

I help organise the Complex Systems Seminar Series (CS4) talks that are held at the University of Southampton. Organising academics is, as the saying goes, like herding cats and it’s not the easiest job in the world at times. But it’s certainly worth the effort as the talks are fascinating and I often get to spend the day with the speakers. A decent lunch and nice evening meal with them and some staff and students helps too.

To coordinate things there is a new and quite shiny website:


Stay tuned for schedule details, news and videos of the talks and interviews with the speakers.


Winchester Science Festival Video

I have finally finished editing and uploading my talk at the Winchester Science Festival.

I was right in that the venue wasn’t exactly packed. But I was wrong with how enthusiastically the talk was received. Before a talk or lecture I spend a not inconsiderable amount of time thinking about how I would answer potentially agressive questions. So I’m very pleasantly surprised when people give every indication that they agree with me and that their questions lead onto very enjoyable conversations!

Many thanks to the organisers of the festival. It’s the first time the event has run and whilst they didn’t have much money they put together a very impressive line up that generated huge amounts of enthusiasm for all things science. Hurrah!


I had a slinky as a child and loved it. Initially because if you stretched it out a little bit and peered inside, it looked similar to this (alas no Tom Baker would appear at the other end). And then because it walked down stairs. All by itself. How did it do that? In that respect, a slinky is a fantastic tool for understanding physics. What is going on in a slinky that makes it able to walk down stairs or in the above instance a treadmill? Or perhaps a simpler question: what happens if you hold a slinky up so that its coils stretch down to just above the ground and then drop it? Continue reading

What is a complex system?

It’s a reasonable question. If I tell you that I work at the Institute for Complex Systems Simulation, then you may ask what is a complex system. I don’t think there is a definitive answer (so it’s pretty mean of us to ask PhD candidates this in their interview). I would say it’s a perspective or an approach to systems that traditionally have been hard to understand. Here, let me show you what I mean (this really works well full screen and with the sound up):

That is a complex system in which the interaction of individuals (birds) that follow three simple rules (try not to get too far away from your neighbours, but don’t get too close and try to go in the same general direction) can produce emergent behaviour that would not be predicted by analysing those simple rules alone. It also happens to be incredibly beautiful and captures a central element of what we can find so awe inspiring about nature. Much like biological evolution, a complex system seems to be able to continually generate complicated, interacting, dynamical patterns. In fact, the evolution of life on Earth, the process that produced hummingbirds and whales, worms and giant redwoods may be understood as a planetary scale complex system. Continue reading