Catherine of Aragon pleads her case against divorce from Henry VIII. Painting by Henry Nelson O’Neil. Image from Wikimedia Commons

The European Union referendum debate—if you can call the circus of the last couple of months that—has not brought out the best in Britain. A vote to Leave the union, or one to Remain, might variously destroy the UK economy, lead to an influx of criminals, or cause World War III. Threats and warnings abound, but almost nobody seems to have actually spoken up for the merits of the EU. And yet, clunky and complex though it may be after decades of real-world political compromises, the history of the union has been one of peace and prosperity for Britain, despite…


A review of “Firewatch”

Feelings of vulnerability, both to the elements and to other people, are perhaps the central theme of Firewatch, the recently released debut game by young studio Campo Santo. No doubt we’ve all felt that way at various points in our lives: walking home late at night; being lost in an unfamiliar place; getting out of one’s depth in a social situation or at work. And it’s that experience that the game deftly taps into, as a tense and very human narrative gradually unfolds.

It’s 1989. Playing as Henry, careworn and perhaps a little bitter after going through a rough patch…


(AP)

Analytics have revolutionized sports. Here’s one approach to better quantify Formula One driving performance.

Performance statistics are everywhere in modern sport, and Formula One is no exception. Lap records, number of wins in a season, the youngest world champion, the longest run of results without a podium finish: these and myriad other figures are always at commentators’ fingertips during a race.

And yet, trying to use this information to rate drivers against each other seems futile. How can modern drivers be compared to the pioneers from the 1950s, when technology, driving styles and safety were so different? …


This article originally appeared as an invited post on the LSE Impact Blog.

Grading the quality of academic research is hard. That is why last year’s Research Excellence Framework (REF) assessment was complex and lengthy. Preparation for the REF started long before 2014, on all sides, and completing it cost the sector an estimated £250m. Universities had plenty of motivation to put a lot of time and resources into their submissions, because success meant a larger allocation of “quality-related” (QR) funds, whose core research component amounts to over a billion pounds per year in England alone.


With the UK’s general election imminent, we, the electorate, have been treated to weeks of horse-trading between politicians on how much each party will or won’t spend on this or that if they get into power. £8bn more for the NHS here, £2.5bn extra for education there. Who would cut welfare? Who would raise taxes?

The problem with this — apart from its utter monotony — is that we have no meaningful yardstick by which to measure these brib… er, pledges. £8bn is a lot of money by anyone’s standards, but is it a lot compared to the NHS’s current…


Photo by Bas van Honk

Why competitive funding is bad for science

This year sees the English higher education sector writhing in the throes of a huge academic quality-assessment exercise. Known by the suitably bureaucratic-sounding title of “Research Excellence Framework” (REF), the process involves most researchers from publicly-funded universities submitting their best work to be pored over and evaluated by a large panel of experts. This is not a meaningless exercise—far from it. The final ratings assigned to the research output of each university will determine how large a slice of a multibillion-pound pie they will get.

According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, the body responsible for collating the information, this…


A review of “Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure”

The full-motion video (FMV) games of the 1990s occupied an interesting niche in the history of computer gaming. Solid storytelling in games had been established by a procession of text adventures released during the late 70s and 80s, but graphical engines were very basic and nowhere near ready for the sophisticated in-engine cutscenes we see today. FMV provided a way to draw the player into a story in a highly compelling visual way, using real actors and sets; and it required relatively little in the way of new technology. …


A review of “The God Delusion”

At the time of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States, I was on holiday in Greece. Although I can transliterate the Greek alphabet (eventually), I do not speak nor read the language, and the increasingly inexplicable scenes which unfolded on the TV news were all the more bewildering for that language barrier. I understood that skyscrapers were collapsing in New York City, and not a lot more than that. …


An experiment with random numbers

Randomness is an awkward concept. Most people have some intuitive idea of what it is supposed to mean, but it’s too intangible for us to feel comfortable with. Worse, randomness is often conflated with arbitrariness, a distasteful and unsettling quality which we usually strive to avoid. Scientists are not immune to this discomfort, either: Einstein famously found quantum theory unpalatable because of the heavy involvement of randomness in its description of the world. “God”, he famously remarked, “does not play dice”.

And yet randomness is important. Outside the realm of quantum mechanics, random…


New methods for predicting treatment outcome in arthritis

This article was originally written as my entry to the 2014 “Access to Understanding” science writing competition. It outlines the context and findings of one of ten scientific papers chosen by the competition organisers.

Arthritis is estimated to affect some 10 million people in the UK alone. Although often assumed to be primarily a disease of the elderly, arthritis can actually affect anyone of any age. It is not even confined to adults: according to research cited by the charity Arthritis Research UK, more than 2500 children develop the main juvenile variant of the disease each year. There is…

Jon Clayden

Journeyman scientist: medical imaging, neuroscience, statistics

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