This first blog after the noughties is purposely something of a miscellany, though while working up a link to the word potpourri, I did notice that the Wikipedia version contains the somewhat deadpan comment “Modern homes avoid having pots of moldly [sic] substances laying about, and potpourri is usually purchased in stores.” This one is available online.

Our final news item of 2009 concerned the BBSRC-funded ‘robot scientist’ project, aimed at the automation of scientific reasoning (and experimentation), which made Time magazine’s ‘top ten scientific discoveries of 2009’.

Christmas reading included Malcolm Gladwell’s well-known Outliers, a chief message of which is that hard work is the bedfellow of genius. I especially enjoyed an excellent book by Stephen Baker called The Numerati about the role of digital data in the modern world (sadly science lags far behind commerce and marketing in their exploitation), and the need for upskilling to make the most of the opportunities afforded. This somewhat complements a more science-focused book on exploiting data, The fourth paradigm, available free to download from Microsoft. In addition, I relaxed with an anthology of amusing cricketing anecdotes (and I am writing this as England completed an extraordinary fourth day in the Durban Test), and a book of trivia.

I also had a little time to surf the net, where one of the things that caught my eye was a site describing the Best Data Visualisations of 2009. I especially liked the TED talk on Photosynth, a technology for stitching together multiple 2D images of related objects (or different views of the same object) to allow them to be explored in rapid, seamless and visually very interesting ways. I can think of many uses for this in scientific visualisation. Another cute visualisation puts into context – much better than this verbal description – the 300-day period in which (presumably an estimated) 50,182,850 people are said to have died, but in which only 5,850 of them died of ‘swine flu’. Cardiovascular disease (~20M) and cancer (6.4M) dwarfed these, with traffic accidents accounting for another 1.05M. Hopefully the next flu pandemic will be equally avirulent, but (especially if ‘avian’ flu) it may not be. Summarising large amounts of complex information visually is both an art and a science, and the more aesthetically appealing methods have been called Infosthetics; this link shows an excellent example, while a more light-hearted analysis (of the correlation between survival and shirt colour in episodes of Star Trek – thanks to Dave Bott for a tweet to this link) includes an excellent summarizing graphic. In a related vein of real-time visualisations, I noted when planning a necessary road trip – somewhat in the spirit of the recognition that the analysis of search engine records can provide data on disease epidemiology – the utility of mashups of twitter feeds in providing quasi-real-time data on UK snow conditions.

Digital organisms – in silico representations of biochemical and other networks and systems – are an important part of our future strategy, and I was interested to read a paper summarizing a genome-scale metabolic network model of the mouse (compare also an earlier version from another group), albeit unfortunately not yet in SBML. When it is, it will be of considerable interest to compare it with that of yeast.

Although I regret that I cannot attend personally I am delighted that BBSRC is co-sponsoring a session at the Oxford Farming Conference this week around the contribution of research. Food security is a major priority for BBSRC, within which translation to practice and provision of highly skilled people are particularly important. BBSRC Directors Janet Allen and Celia Caulcott will be at the Conference.

In my introduction to the Winter issue of our Business magazine (available shortly) I outline the pivotal role of bioscience and BBSRC in meeting the challenge of food security and other national strategic priorities, I look forward to BBSRC working with academic, industrial and other partners to optimise the impact of our science in the years ahead.

As I mentioned in the previous blog, this week will see me representing RCUK at the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee inquiry into Bioengineering. After that I shall be attending some of the proceedings of our Systems Biology grantholders’ workshop in Edinburgh. And finally, I wish a happy, healthy and rewarding 2010 to all.

Related posts (based on tags and chronology):