Category Archives: Science communication

2008 Royal Institution Christmas Lectures: Professor Chris Bishop

The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, started by Michael Faraday in 1825, are one of the highlights of science communication specifically aimed at young people to be broadcast on national television. I distinctly remember watching the Christmas Lectures when I was young, in particular Richard Dawkins in 1991 and Frank Close in 1993. The 2013 Christmas Lectures — Life Fantastic — have Alison Woollard from the University of Oxford exploring the frontiers of developmental biology and uncovering the remarkable transformation of a single cell into a complex organism.

Unsurprisingly, I am always reminded of the single instance in 2008 of a computer scientist presenting the Christmas Lectures: Hi-tech Trek with Chris Bishop, a Distinguished Scientist at Microsoft Research Cambridge, where he leads the Machine Learning and Perception group:

Christopher Bishop


From the origin of the microprocessor to the development of the internet, the field of computer science has literally changed the way in which we live our lives.

But the world of computers is vast and complicated, ranging from the architecture of microchips to use of quantum mechanics for data encryption – it’s not always easy to know what exactly is going on inside the box. So how do computers work? How is so much information stored within a single hard-drive and how do computers communicate with each other over the internet?

Across five lectures, Professor Chris Bishop sheds light on some of these questions by tracing the evolution of the modern computer. Along the way he explores the many technologies which have developed as a result of the computer revolution; including the interconnected world of the internet, the use of software to control hardware and the challenges involved in creating artificial intelligence.

You can watch all five episodes of the 2008 Lectures on the excellent Ri Channel (as well as extra resources on the microsite):

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BBC Four: The Joy of Logic

Catch The Joy of Logic by Dave Cliff on iPlayer before it disappears! Programme blurb:


A sharp, witty, mind-expanding and exuberant foray into the world of logic with computer scientist Professor Dave Cliff. Following in the footsteps of the award-winning ‘The Joy of Stats’ and its sequel, ‘Tails You Win — The Science of Chance’, this film takes viewers on a new rollercoaster ride through philosophy, maths, science and technology — all of which, under the bonnet, run on logic.

Wielding the same wit and wisdom, animation and gleeful nerdery as its predecessors, this film journeys from Aristotle to Alice in Wonderland, sci-fi to supercomputers to tell the fascinating story of the quest for certainty and the fundamentals of sound reasoning itself.

Dave Cliff, professor of computer science and engineering at Bristol University, is no abstract theoretician. 15 years ago he combined logic and a bit of maths to write one of the first computer programs to outperform humans at trading stocks and shares. Giving away the software for free, he says, was not his most logical move…

With the help of 25 seven-year-olds, Professor Cliff creates, for the first time ever, a computer made entirely of children, running on nothing but logic. We also meet the world’s brainiest whizz-kids, competing at the International Olympiad of Informatics in Brisbane, Australia.

‘The Joy of Logic’ also hails logic’s all-time heroes: George Boole who moved logic beyond philosophy to mathematics; Bertrand Russell, who took 360+ pages but heroically proved that 1 + 1 = 2; Kurt Godel, who brought logic to its knees by demonstrating that some truths are unprovable; and Alan Turing, who, with what Cliff calls an ‘almost exquisite paradox’, was inspired by this huge setback to logic to conceive the computer.

Ultimately, the film asks, can humans really stay ahead? Could today’s generation of logical computing machines be smarter than us? What does that tell us about our own brains, and just how ‘logical’ we really are…?

(you might also like this In Our Time programme on the history of logic from 2010 or this BBC Science Café programme on logic I was a guest on in 2011)

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Winchester Science Festival 2013

Yesterday I spoke at the 2013 Winchester Science Festival, a fantastic weekend of science communication and science education with some excellent speakers. My talk was entitled “Computing: The Science of Nearly Everything” (slides), which attempted to reset the perception of computer science: highlighting the importance of computer science education (in particular the wide utility of programming) and how modern science and engineering increasingly leverages computation.

Précis: We have seen how computational techniques have moved on from assisting scientists in doing science, to transforming both how science is done and what science is done (also see this Royal Society report). Thus, perhaps we should value the increasingly cross-cutting and interdisciplinary field of computer science, as well as computational literacy from school through to postgraduate research skills training.

Dr Tom Crick opening slide

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(you can also see other photos from the 2013 Winchester Science Festival, including me doing silly gestures)

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We’ve sold Computer Science, now we have to sell what it means to be a Computer Scientist…

Last week was an exceptional week for computer science education in the UK: Google donating 15,000 Raspberry Pis to UK schoolchildren, Microsoft calling for computer science to be taught from primary school, the Department for Education including computer science in the EBacc as the “fourth science” and UCAS 2013 entry statistics showing the highest increase in total applications for Computer Sciences (up 12.3%). This follows on from the launch of the CAS Network of Computer Science Teaching Excellence in September, the publication in November of the draft ICT Programme of Study for England and the announcement in January of a review of the ICT curriculum in Wales, reporting back in June.

So it appears we’ve sold the rigorous academic discipline of computer science; but not to simply increase the supply of programmers for the IT industry or to get more people to study computer science at university — the rationale has always been based upon computer science being of wider educational value to everyone, in the same way as we value physics and mathematics. But after a discussion with Pete Yeomans (@ethinking) at the CAS fringe event at Bett 2013 last week, it appears that we are now facing a more subtle and refined challenge:

This is the real (marketing?) challenge: to truly change the wider perception of the discipline, we now have to sell what it really means to be a computer scientist, how to think like a computer scientist and the universal potential of this mindset.

And everyone needs to understand and value this.

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We need a scientifically literate citizenry

Our species needs, and deserves, a citizenry with minds wide awake and a basic understanding of how the world works.

Carl Sagan (1934-1996)

Brian Cox said something similar (even directly referring to Sagan) during his acceptance speech on receiving the Institute of Physics President’s Medal last night.

The key message is: if you’re scientifically literate the world looks very different to you.

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The successful Welsh Geek Manifesto Pledge

In June, Chris Chambers and I started the Welsh Geek Manifesto Pledge, a declaration to send a copy of Mark Henderson‘s The Geek Manifesto to all 60 Assembly Members of the National Assembly of Wales.

Success! Yesterday, we received the final pledge and are collecting the donations. We are currently planning an event to maximise the impact of the delivery of the 60 copies of The Geek Manifesto to the National Assembly in Cardiff Bay (more details to follow shortly).

N.B. The Welsh Geek Manifesto Pledge followed the original Geek Manifesto Pledge for the 650 MPs in Westminster; there are open pledges in Northern Ireland (“Geekmanifulster”), Scotland (GeekScotland) and Australia (Geek the Vote).

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Cardiff Science Festival 2012

CSF banner

July 2012 marks the return of Cardiff Science Festival (a.k.a. Gŵyl Gwyddoniaeth Caerdydd), after a break of nearly seven years. Science festivals are popping up all over the country, especially with the popularity of Cheltenham Science Festival and the long-running British Science Festival (this year taking place in Aberdeen), so it’s about time Cardiff put itself back on the science map.

So, starting Monday 9th July, Cardiff will play host to a spectacular line-up of scientists and science communicators from across the UK in a range of science-themed events, lectures, exhibitions, music and comedy shows across the city. There are more than forty family and adult events over the week, including a few in which I am taking part:

It’s shaping up to be an excellent week! While the majority of the events are free, many require registration, so please check the CSF website, as well as @CdfScienceFest on Twitter, for the latest news, information and updates.

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BCS Education Bursary projects announced

Today, the BCS Academy of Computing announced the successful applicants of the BCS Education Bursaries, which aim to promote computer science as an academic discipline, in celebration of Alan Turing’s centenary year.

Over 200 schools, colleges and universities applied for the £30,000 fund and I had the pleasure of being on the judging panel, an exceptionally difficult process with so many high quality applications. After several hours of debate, we were able to fund 31 projects across the UK that we believe will enthuse and engage the next generation of technologists about computer science. A brief description of the successful projects can be found here.

I’d like to say a massive congratulations to the successful projects; I’m looking forward to seeing what impact they have over the next year!

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