Friday, January 27, 2006

CoGBiN 2006

I'm on the Organizing Committee of CoGBiN 2006: a Workshop on Computation in Genetic and Biochemical Networks, which is to be held as part of Unconventional Computation 2006, 4th-8th September 2006, York, UK.

The Workshop on Computation in Genetic and Biochemical Networks aims to provide a forum to bring together biologists and computer scientists who are interested in computational models of the behaviours which occur in genetic and biochemical networks. We welcome paper submissions from researchers interested in understanding the forms of computation carried out by biological networks in vivo, in applying these forms of computation in silico, and in the emerging field of synthetic biology.

Selected papers will be considered for publication in the journal BioSystems.

Important Dates

Paper submission: 1st May 2006
Paper notification: 1st July 2006

See the website for details of how to submit.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Bad news for Darwin, rationality

Are we about to see a repeat of the "intelligent design" debate, this time in the UK? The BBC has recently carried out a survey of the British population, taking opinions on the theory of evolution. The results are profoundly disturbing and depressing:

Over 2000 participants took part in the survey, and were asked what best described their view of the origin and development of life:

  • 22% chose creationism
  • 17% opted for intelligent design
  • 48% selected evolution theory
  • and the rest did not know.

When given a choice of three theories, people were asked which ones they would like to see taught in science lessons in British schools:

  • 44% said creationism should be included
  • 41% intelligent design
  • 69% wanted evolution as part of the science curriculum.

The "positive" figure of 70% wanting evolution taught in science lessons masks the obvious fact that nearly a third of the population, by definition, do not want it taught in science class -- the additional fact that 44% want creationism included in science curricula is worrying in the extreme.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Update: A380 evacuation trainer installed

Airbus have just installed their first A380 cabin emergency evacuation trainer at their training centre in Toulouse. "`Now we are ready to get on with flight testing and certification on the A380,' says Engine Alliance president Bruce Hughes."

"Watt's in a name"

As a proud alumnus of both the Universities of Coventry (B.Sc.) and Warwick (Ph.D.), I was mildly amused by this article on the difficulties of naming places of higher education.

When I was at Warwick, every year we would we hear stories of Ph.D. students applying from overseas (who hadn't visited the campus prior to accepting their place) inadvertently snapping up hideously expensive flats in the centre of Warwick, only to arrive and find that they were miles from campus and paying roughly triple the price of an equivalent place in Coventry. I think, in the end, the University had to put a warning note in its promotional literature, as it was beginning to get rather embarrassing.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Microbes and Microbots

In his consistently excellent blog, Richard Jones discusses the history of the nanobot; the "Fantastic Voyage"-style nanoscale submarine cruising our bloodstream looking for nasties like cancer cells and broken capillaries.

"Attempts to write the nanobot out of the history of nanotechnology thus seem doomed, so we had better try and rehabilitate the concept. If we accept that the shrunken submarine image is hopelessly misleading, how can we replace it by something more realistic?

Personally, I believe that we would be better served by taking a step back, and first considering the feasibility of microbots, before we even contemplate such devices on the nanoscale. Richard makes the valid point that the science fiction images of incredibly miniaturised submarines do the field of nanotechnology a great disservice, as they do nothing to dispel the myth of nanotech being "engineering, only smaller".

Based on my interpretation of Richard's book Soft Machines (he nabbed my title, the rotter ;-), I think he might agree with me that a rather more realistic (and certainly interesting) route would be to re-engineer existing living systems for the purposes of providing such applications.

As I point out in my own popular science book Genesis Machines: The Coming Revolution in Biocomputing and Synthetic Biology (Atlantic Books, November 6th -- watch this space for updates and sneak previews):

"Nature has computation, compression and contraptions down to a fine art...A human genome sequence may be stored on a single DVD, and yet pretty much every cell in our body contains a copy. Science fiction authors tell stories of "microbots" -- incredibly tiny devices that can roam around under their own power, sensing their environment, talking to one another and destroying intruders. Such devices already exist, but we know them better as bacteria."

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Minimal genome

The journal PNAS has this week published an open access article by the Synthetic Biology Group lead by Craig Venter (the founder of the commercial "rival" to the publically-funded human genome project).

One of the objectives of Venter's group is to identify the smallest possible set of genes required to sustain life. By knocking out genes one by one and assessing the effect of such deletions, they hope to derive a minimal "component list" for a living cell. As they state in the introduction to the article, "One consequence of progress in the new field of synthetic biology is an emerging view of cells as assemblages of parts that can be put together to produce an organism with a desired phenotype. That perspective begs the question: "How few parts would it take to construct a cell?" In an environment that is free from stress and provides all necessary nutrients, what would constitute the simplest free-living organism? This problem has been approached theoretically and experimentally in our laboratory and elsewhere."

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Airbus A380 evacuation trial

Those familiar with our recent work on aircraft evacuation modelling will known that the safety community is still waiting for Airbus to carry out its long-awaited full-scale evacuation trial of the double-decker A380. Without this being passed, the authorities will be unable to certify the aircraft as safe to carry paying passengers. Our simulation study concerned evacuation delay caused by passengers hesitating at the upper exit, and we predicted that the trial will fail (ie. not all passengers will be evacuated in under 90 seconds) if the average door hesitation exceeded 1.1 seconds. Of course, this is pure speculation on our part, based on a rather simplistic computer model, and we await with interest the results of the real-life trial. Flight International have confirmed information that the trial will be held "around March" this year. Such announcements have been made before, with no trial being held, but Airbus need to get their skates on, as they're already running six months behind schedule on delivery.

Monday, January 02, 2006

2006: The Dangerous Ideas

First, I'd like to wish readers a happy, peaceful and prosperous New Year.

"The mandate of Edge Foundation is to promote inquiry into and discussion of intellectual, philosophical, artistic, and literary issues, as well as to work for the intellectual and social achievement of society."

At the start of every year, the Edge poses an annual question, and asks some of the foremost contemporary thinkers to share their thoughts on it. This year, the question is "What is your dangerous idea?".

"Here you will find indications of a new natural philosophy, founded on the realization of the import of complexity, of evolution. Very complex systems — whether organisms, brains, the biosphere, or the universe itself — were not constructed by design; all have evolved. There is a new set of metaphors to describe ourselves, our minds, the universe, and all of the things we know in it."

Contributors to this collection of essays include Philip Anderson, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Freeman Dyson, Danny Hillis, Brian Goodwin, Steven Pinker, Douglas Rushkoff and Craig Venter. Of particular personal interest are the essays by Lynn Margulis (our sensory capabilities have evolved as a result of interactions between social bacteria) and Robert Shapiro (we shall understand the origin of life within the next 5 years).