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.


How to print money

How much are academic journals worth? The following table gives some indication of dollar costs and how they have changed over a 5 year period.

LC Classification Average
Anthropology $389 $543 40%
Chemistry $2799 $3690 32%
Engineering $1530 $2047 34%
History $183 $263 44%
Philosophy and Religion $205 $281 37%
Political Science $365 $539 48%

Reproduced from

That’s a hefty increase. Did producing academic journals become over 30% more expensive in that period? No. In fact the cost of producing journals should be much less than it used to be. Many journals are no longer physically printed and so there is a reduction in manufacturing and distribution costs. The typesetting of papers is increasingly done by authors using desktop tools (such as the absolutely fabulous Latex). The people who write the papers are not paid. The people who review the papers are not paid. The editors of the respective journals are not paid. There will be some paid staff at the journal to coordinate, undertake aspects of typesetting and proof reading. Important jobs but ones that do not command very high salaries. So just were is all this extra money going to? Continue reading

Why do I do what I do?

The Curiosity rover is currently trundling its way across the surface of Mars in a quest to understand if Mars was ever able to support life and perhaps even detect evidence of past life. We’ve come a long way from fearing an attack from a hostile Martian civilisation. The Earth is at no risk from Martian rockets, heat rays or tripods. Mars, like our other nearest Solar System neighbour Venus, is a barren world devoid of any life. Why is the Earth the way it is and not more like Mars or Venus?

Photo: JPL / NASA

Prior to joining the Institute for Complex Systems Simulation at the University of Southampton I thought about this question rather a lot. It was a central part of my previous job as a member of the Helmholtz Alliance funded Planetary Evolution & Life project that I worked on at the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry in Jena.

But my interest in this question predates my time in Germany. Continue reading

Read all about it!

I currently have a few papers in press or recently published, so I thought I would briefly mention them and see if I can convince you to  invest the time on clicking on a download link and having a look to see what they are about.

Data, data everywhere…

We are producing more data about the Earth. More satellites in space looking down and charting the changes in the planet. More high altitude balloons. Aircraft based sensors. Flux towers. And people in the field. Struggling and sweating their way through rain forests collecting bugs and measuring the thickness of tree trunks.

Unfortunatey all this new data doesn’t immediately translate into new knowledge. In fact at times it seems as if we are drowning in data. Last year I was very fortunate to work with a group of very clever folk with the aim of trying to develop a new method for using some of this data to make better models of vegetation coverage. Continue reading

So you want to do a PhD?

That’s great. Perhaps you would be interested in me supervising you? If so, you have impeccable taste. In any event let’s talk some more. Being paid to spend several years researching something in today’s economic environment is an amazing opportunity. Competition for PhD places can be incredibly fierce. If you are successful and not only get a position but a fully funded position then congratulations! I’m going to assume that you want to do a PhD in order to end up working in academia. If not then some/most of the following will not be of relevance, but perhaps still of interest. And most importantly, I’m going to assume that notwithstanding what I just said, you are well aware of the arguments for why doing a PhD isn’t a very good idea at all. You’re not? Ah.

Continue reading

A life of science

How is this not a good talk?

  • Reads from a script
  • Wears a hat that shades his eyes
  • Stiff even a little stilted delivery

And none of that matters. All the emphasis on polish and pitch and engagement and audio/visual presentation is irrelevant. It’s what he says that makes this a riveting talk. And I would hazard a guess that even if you strongly disagree with Hansen (and quite a few do) you would still find the talk riveting because he quickly focusses in on what the issue of climate change is about: to what extent are we affecting the Earth’s climate and what are the consequences to us and future generations?

Hansen is someone worth listening to because he has largely framed this debate (in the USA at least). He’s got a very interesting perspective: a life of science and reflection on what he has learnt and how that informs what he should do with the rest of his life.


I spend most of my time doubting what it is that I’m doing. Most? Pretty much all of my time. Much is made of doubt in science. The deep mystery of the universe. Peering into the unkown.

I’m not talking about that sort of doubt. No, I’m talking about the fact that nearly every day I have the continual feeling that I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing. Feyman talks very eloquently about doubt and ignorance  in science. The forever frustration in trying to understand the rules of the game that nature is playing. I don’t even know what game I’m looking at most of the time. Every now and again the crowd cheer and some people move about or swap places. Something significant has happened I conclude. Then it’s back to white noise.

The reasons for this are (mainly) twofold. First and foremost I’m not very smart. I wish I was. But there it is and that’s how it goes. I’ve just got to get on with it. Second, I do ‘multidisciplinary’ research. I spend a lot of my time talking to people who really do know things. And who are also smart. There’s a wonderful passage in an E. O. Wilson book (title escapes me) in which he describes crouching down at the edge of a tropical rain forest, looking at a small wolf spider. Staring into its tiny, unblinking eyes he considers how little we know about this particular species and how he could happily imagine spending many years or decades discovering how it moves, hunts, breeds and makes its living among the giant trees.

I appreciate this sort of scientific obsession. To continually learn more about something and so fill in more of the blanks. The ability to write a richer story about some little facet of nature. But try as I might (and OK, I haven’t tried that hard) I always seem to get distracted by something else. Sometimes it’s not the something else per se, but that way that this new thing may interact with some other things.

I used to play a game as a child. I’m sure many others played/play this sort of game too. You name two different things. Then you connect them by telling a story. Telephone and conkers. Blanket and abseil. Points awarded to the best fabulist. If you’re not careful, you can see connections everywhere. That’s a common feature of conspiracy theories. But doubt should limit the sort of epistemological damage that unconstrainted connections can do.

If I want to study connections and their system properties then I’m doomed to a life of doubt. But I always hold out for those moments when I make out the cheers and shouts, a pattern emerges and I feel I’ve learnt something.

New paper in press

I’m a co-author on a paper that will soon be published in the Journal of Biogeography. You can download a PDF version of it here. It’s about how we can make better predictions of the response of plants, trees and other vegetation to things like climate change. This is something that a lot of people are spending a lot of time and money trying to do.

Why such interest? Take the change in forest cover for example. Climate models predict potentially profound changes in temperature and rainfall in the Amazon region. If significant numbers of trees in rain forests were to die in response to such changes, they would release many millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere which, along with other effects, would have large impacts on the local and global climate.

In this paper we have suggested how vegetation models (in particular, models called Dynamic Global Vegetation Models – DGVMs) could be improved by using the ever-increasing amounts of new data being produced by field studies, aircraft and satellites. We outline how this data can improve model performance via Bayesian statistics. Currently, data is used to determine the best values for model parameters. For example, people conduct experiements to try to determine how photosynthesis is affected by changing temperature. But this leaves a lot of data unused. By inverting DGVMs it should be possible to produce better model predictions because more of the data can be employed to refine model output. Depending on how you feel about statistical methods and inference this may be a great idea or something really rather unsettling. To those experience the latter emotion I would say: relax, it doesn’t matter what colour the cat is, only that it catches mice! Actually that may make it worse. Let’s talk about it over coffee.