Wednesday, April 25, 2007

A new kind of firefighting

I managed to miss a potentially interesting edition of Horizon on the BBC after making the mistake of flicking over to watch the second half of the Manchester Utd/Milan match.

Anyway, I caught the last ten minutes, and managed to glean the basic facts: that fewer people would have died when the Twin Towers collapsed on September 11 had the authorities been in possession of a global picture of the state of the building (in terms of both its structure and the movement of its occupants). But having the raw data is not enough: it needs to be provided as input to predictive models that are capable of allowing firefighters to play "what if" games. These models are necessarily computationally complex and resource intensive, which is where Jose Torero comes in. He's in charge of Firegrid, an interdisciplinary project dedicated to using Grid-based computing to model and predict, in real-time, the evolution of fire emergencies.

This work is related to my own on evacuation modelling, and we've recently been awarded a Ph.D. studentship in order to develop our ideas on how crush conditions emerge in situations where people fail to follow a set evacuation plan. This work will be done in collaboration with Dr Steve Gwynne, who has worked for the last ten years on modelling people movement, and who helped develop the influential Exodus system. The position will be advertised shortly, so watch this space.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Warwick victorious!

Congratulations to one of my old institutions, Warwick, on winning the 2007 University Challenge. In a tight match, they eventually fought off the reigning champions, Manchester, both securing Warwick's first ever series win and preventing their opponents from gaining the first ever "back to back" run of titles.

I'm afraid, however, that most neutrals watching will remember it more for Prakash Patel's post-presentation lunge for Ann Widdecombe than anything else.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Edinburgh Science Festival

Just a quick reminder that I'll be appearing at the Edinburgh Science Festival next Sunday (April 15th). Full details of my event (including how to reserve tickets) are here, and I'm told that there will be a book signing afterwards.

An apt observation

Jonathan Hodgkin, a Professor of Biochemistry at the University of Oxford, has published a nice essay in the March 28 edition of the Times Literary Supplement. It's built around a review of both Genesis Machines and Robert Frenay's recent book, Pulse (which I haven't yet had the chance to read, but which has a very nice website). This is the second occasion on which the two have been jointly reviewed (the first being Matt Ridley's examination here).

Anyway, I'm happy with Hodgkin's overall assessment of my own book, and he makes some fair points concerning gaps in topical coverage. I specifically avoided dealing in detail with quantum computing (although, to be fair, I did mention it), as I didn't want the book to turn into a detailed "quantum vs DNA" debate (and I'm not sure I have the expertise to do justice to the quantum "camp" anyway). It's understandable, though, that as a chemist Hodgkin should highlight the omission of aptamer development.

Aptamers are synthetic molecules that can fold up into very detailed three-dimensional shapes, thus binding to other molecules with incredible specificity. They can therefore be used to target other molecules in the same way as antibodies, and offer a wide range of applications in biotechnology and medicine. Because the possible space of three-dimensional shapes a molecule can adopt is potentially vast, researchers must use a smart approach to finding aptamers, as opposed to a "hit-and-hope" policy. The technique that has been developed, the name of which is abbreviated to SELEX,
uses an evolutionary approach based on an initial molecular population. Interestingly, it may be thought of (rather loosely) as a "wet" version of the genetic algorithm.

One possible hook that I could perhaps have made more of is the fact that Andrew Ellington, one of the founders of aptamer development, was one of the main researchers involved in recently building a bacterial camera (which did merit a mention in the book!)

Sunday, April 01, 2007

"From Rive Gauche to Rochdale..."

...was Justine's remark yesterday, as we drove home through that northern town after a wonderful week in Paris. We visited Dennis Shasha and his family, as he's there on sabbatical from New York University and kindly invited us over. Justine and Alice took in the sights while Dennis and I got down to some work.

We stayed in a marvellous little hotel, just around the corner from the Eglise Saint-Sulpice (which featured as a central location in The Da Vinci Code).

Wednesday was spent walking and talking with Dennis, bouncing around ideas about biocomputing. His wife, Karen, kindly took time out to show Justine and Alice around the Jardin du Luxembourg. Thursday was spend working while Justine wandered up to the Louvre, before we had dinner with the Shashas. We wrapped up on Friday morning, then Justine and I took some time out to revisit Monmartre, where we honeymooned three years ago.

It was a pleasure to spend time with Dennis and his family; both he and his wife are prodigiously talented, Dennis as a scientist, writer and (as Alice was delighted to discover) juggler, and Karen as an artist (and cook!), and we much appreciated their hospitality. Dennis and I are currently working on the draft paper that emerged from our discussions, which will hopefully appear as a preprint in the next few weeks - watch this space.