I don’t remember exactly where I was or even exactly when it was, but my earliest memory of being transported to that galaxy a long time ago and far, far away was watching the Battle of Endor, rooting for Han and Leia as they attempted to turn off a force field protecting the half-completed second Death Star, which turned out to be “quite op-er-ational” and able to destroy Rebel ships in an instant. I remember sitting in front of the TV gripped by the fight between good and evil, father and son: a pair of space wizards wielding lightning swords. And, of course, the final redemption of the ultimate bad guy, when he throws his boss into a chasm, guarded only by a railing that quite frankly isn’t up to the job.
The Death Star is, in many ways, a Health and Safety nightmare. Maybe it’s something about being evil, but there seems to be very little concern for the welfare of workers in the Empire. There are numerous (some would say too many) ledges with no railings, warning signs or places to attach harnesses, alongside open pits in floors, and doors that seem to be designed to be just short enough for unwary Storm Troopers to bang their heads. At least the helmet offers something in the way of Personal Protective Equipment to prevent head injury, though little protection against blasters, it’s actual supposed purpose.
And this is before we have even got to the workers forced to stand metres from a superlaser designed to destroy whole planets. These poor technicians stationed beside the huge, bright green beams were at least given visors that were designed to cut out the laser light. Unfortunately for them, the effectiveness of a piece of glass against a Doomsday weapon may be minimal.
This is because destroying a planet isn’t easy. It needs a LOT of energy. Although gravity is the weakest of the fundamental forces (no, not The Force…), it surrounds us, binds us (really, NOT The Force…). It causes mass to bind together – and there’s a LOT of mass in a planet. Let’s take our very own planet Earth as an example. To overcome this gravitational binding energy and turn the Earth from a near-sphere into an expanding cloud of rock and sorrow would take somewhere in the region of 224 trillion exajoules: 224,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 J, which in scientific terms is a ridiculously large number. I got tired and confused just typing it out. This figure represents the total energy output of the Sun for a week. Looking at it another way, it’s just a little less than all of the sunlight that has landed on Earth since the dinosaurs died out, 65 million years ago, or firing the most powerful laser ever made on Earth continuously for about 7,000,000,000 years. It’s a lot of energy. This means that the Death Star needs to pack a great big punch. Fortunately it is possible to transport that amount of energy in a relatively small space. And by small I mean on a planet-destroying space station like the Death Star which is a whopping 160 km in diameter!
Einstein showed us that the amount of energy in an object is equal to its mass multiplied by the speed of light multiplied by the speed of light again, or to put it much more elegantly, E=mc2. This means that every kilogram of mass could be turned into 9×1016 J of energy. By dividing this by our ridiculously large binding energy figure it turns out the Empire would only need to turn 2.5 trillion tonnes of matter into energy to reach their goal. Simple! Granted, a trillion tonnes is a lot of matter, but for a military industrial complex like the Galactic Empire, it should be within their grasp. For instance, in 2017 a 5,700 km2 iceberg broke away from Antarctica’s Larsen C ice shelf. Scooping a couple of ‘bergs that size from an ice planet like Hoth would give you the required mass. Even easier, they could just grab a conveniently-sized asteroid from one of the many asteroid belts. One with a diameter of 5-6 km would have about the right mass.
There is, however, a problem. Turning all of that mass into energy is going to be tricky. But who ever said planetary destruction would be easy? The Empire has been shown to be in possession of some incredible technology, but it’s never explained in too much detail, so do they have the means to feasibly convert all that mass into energy? One method would be to not use matter at all, but instead use antimatter. Antimatter is matter’s ‘evil’ twin, like Star Trek’s Mirror Universe Spock, only instead of a beard to signify its sinister intentions, it has an opposing charge. Antimatter and matter annihilate one another when the two come into contact with each other, explosively turning 100% of the mass into energy in an instant. The benefit of this would be that you would only need half the required mass as per Einstein’s equation – the doomed planet would supply the other half, so you would only need a little over a trillion tonnes of antimatter. Win! The downside is that antimatter (at least on Earth) is the most expensive substance ever created. Estimates vary, but NASA suggested that a single gram of antihydrogen could be made for a mere $62.5 trillion. That would mean that to fire the Death Star weapon just once would cost $300 for every joule in our ridiculously big gravitational binding energy that we need to overcome. That’s 3 followed by 34 zeros; an expenditure that even a galactic civilisation might think twice about.
An easier method (and again, everything is relative…) would be to drop the mass onto a spinning black hole in the Death Star’s core. At maximum efficiency this would convert 42% of the mass into energy, so you would need a bigger asteroid. While that may not be a problem, there may be one or two technical hurdles involved in taming a black hole… however I can’t imagine this method costing more than the antimatter route. All of this suggests that the Death Star’s weapon might not be laser-based as we presume, but something much more exotic.
A quick mention of another laser-like but DEFINITELY not laser-based weapon that fans of Star Wars may be aware of: The obscure and little known Jedi weapon called a “lightsaber” (WARNING: previous sentence contains at least 400% too much sarcasm). Possibly the most famous weapon in all of fiction, owning a lightsaber is the dream of every child (and almost every adult) who has seen a Jedi using one. From toys to videogames, they are EVERYWHERE; lightsaber-duelling has even been recognised as an official sport in France as of February 2019, although it does use a less… powerful version of a lightsaber (ie. glowing plastic batons).
At first glance lightsabers may look similar to lasers, but there are a few fundamental differences; the main ones being that you can see the blade, and that the blade is only 3 foot long. Let’s look at these one at a time. The first point might seem counterintuitive but the truth is that light is invisible. If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t be able to see anything as every beam of light that crossed our vision would stop you seeing what’s on the other side. You only see light when it interacts with your retina. This means in general a laser is only seen as a dot on a wall as the light reflects off the wall into your eye (you should never look directly at a laser, even if they aren’t Death Star-powered; even a laser pointer has the potential to permanently damage your eyes). You may have seen the beam from a green laser pointer as it crosses a darkened room or is shone into the sky, but this is caused by Rayleigh scattering; the same phenomenon that makes the sky blue. The scattered laser light that enters your eye allows you to see it. For a lightsaber to be seen from the side suggests it must be radiating light towards you, rather than just being a laser beam emitted straight up from the handle. The other main difference is the length of the blade. Lightsaber blades are usually around 1 metre in length, but if the blade were laser-based, it would shoot out of the handle and carry on forever, or until it hits an object. Lightsaber blades are therefore much more likely to be an “energy” or plasma blade, rather than a laser.
So could you make a real lightsaber? Without the force-imbued Kyber crystal, it’s going to be difficult, however there was a brief glimmer of hope in 2013 when scientists from MIT published a paper in Nature suggesting that they had turned light into molecules. Would it be possible to construct a blade using these exotic photons? This might be a moot point. Going back to my earlier point about Health and Safety, I think there is a very strong argument for NOT building lightsabers, even if they were possible. They may be, as Ben Kenobi states, “an elegant weapon for a more civilised age”, but the risk assessment alone would mean that only a very select few would ever be able to hold one, never mind wield it in battle. The huge power requirements needed to produce a plasma (or “energy”) blade capable of cutting through nearly any substance is going to be a problem. Even if batteries could be made with the energy density necessary, they would basically turn the lightsaber handle into a rather unstable bomb, projecting a blade of at least several thousand degrees in temperature – not something you want to hold anywhere near your face, or have idly hanging from your belt… I’d also suggest that holding a very light object that can effortlessly slice through nearly anything might be a tad dangerous.
Lets face it, the Force is not strong in our galaxy (or at least we haven’t found a way to manipulate it – yet…) so it is likely that the very first thing that will happen after the first lightsaber gets turned on is the very first lightsaber-related self-amputation, and that’s just setting ourselves up for a lot of paperwork. So while the science of Star Wars may be edging closer to becoming a reality, perhaps we should be careful – or at least have a COSHH form ready for – what we wish for.
I heard the sad news Peter Mayhew’s death just before publishing this article.
RIP Chewbacca. May the Force be with You.
About the author: Karl is an award winning Science Communicator, trainer and Public Engagement Consultant and is currently the Public Engagement Manager at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. Originally from Northern Ireland but now living in London, Karl graduated from the University of Edinburgh with a degree in Virology in 2002. He then worked in laboratories in Edinburgh and Belfast for the next 6 years on a range of subjects including HIV, Hepatitis C, the MMR vaccine and lung diseases caused by smoking,
He has been actively involved in science communication and public engagement since 2000. His previous roles include Christmas Lectures Manager at the Royal Institution of Great Britain, where he produced Professor Saiful Islam’s 2016 lectures TV series, and Senior Programme Coordinator at Cheltenham Science Festival. He also lectures on public engagement, and has trained scientists and public engagement professionals to be better communicators in over 15 countries, on 4 continents.
In his spare time, Karl is an avid fan of cinema and has written and presented numerous shows looking at the science behind science fiction, as well as the “Science Friction” podcast.
Writing on a computer today, most of us now expect our writing support tools to offer grammar and spell checkers. These features use hard-coded rules to assess if a sentence is correct following the rules of English. The problem with this rule-based approach is that in many cases the rules are not clearly defined. For example, in the use of prepositions, we sit ‘on’ a dining chair, and yet we sit ‘in’ a rocking chair. In other cases, rules do exist, but they fail to address how language is really used.
Today, we are excited to announce our investment in Writefull – a deep learning language platform applied to discipline-specific scientific texts to help improve the clarity of written English. We believe Writefull will help authors to express their work more clearly before they submit articles for publication, especially those who have English as their second language (and quite a few of us native speakers too for that matter). In addition, publishers will have a service to help relieve the administrative burden on editors, maintain house style and to help with quality control.
“When we first met the founders they demonstrated Writefull highlighting a sentence that read “…the tall mountains and high trees”. Although grammatically correct, a native speaker (subconsciously) wouldn’t describe mountains as “tall” and trees as “high” but instead as “…high mountains and tall trees”… Writefull points users to change this. We were impressed.”
Writefull helps authors improve the clarity of their work. It suggests improvements to grammar and spelling and to academic language usage such as sentence structures in scientific writing, discipline-specific vocabulary and appropriate word choice. These suggestions are based on real-world, context-specific usage rather than on a fixed set of grammatical rules.
When we first met the founders of Writefull, Juan and Alberto, they demonstrated the AI highlighting a sentence that read “…the tall mountains and high trees”. Although grammatically correct – as a native speaker, something does not sound quite right about that sentence. The nuance of English is such that we (subconsciously) wouldn’t describe mountains as “tall” and trees as “high”. The recommendation picked up by Writefull’s Deep Learning and N-gram approach pointed the user to change this to “…high mountains and tall trees”. Language is full of such aspects of usage, and these don’t have fixed rules that can be hard-coded in advance.
We were impressed.
In making our investment in Writefull, we now have a solution that steps beyond rules-based approaches to cover style and usage, and applies that technology specifically to scientific writing, training the AI to understand the vocabulary and style within that domain.
The founders, with their machine learning and AI backgrounds, have a feature-packed product roadmap and we here at Digital Science look forward to working with them to help the rest of us express our ideas more clearly.
Author Bio: Emily Cotter is the Events and Communications Manager at Liverpool Girl Geeks and InnovateHer.
Wikipedia has an average of 18 billion page views per month. It is a font of knowledge for many millennials, yet in 2011 only 10% of Wikipedia contributors were women, and in 2018 only 17% of entries on this online encyclopaedia were about women. We desperately wanted to do something about Wikipedia’s gender imbalance, especially as there are so many incredible women achieving the impossible in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) that deserve to have their stories told and heard by the next generation of STEM superstars. Last month, InnovateHer) teamed up with STEMettes and Digital Science to inspire a group of women and teenage girls to become Wikipedia Editors and sing the song of these unsung ‘Sheros’.
The team introduce the Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon to attendees
InnovateHer is a social enterprise on a mission to improve the gender balance in the technology sector by getting girls ready for the tech industry, and the industry ready for girls. We currently run an 8-week industry-led programme in schools around the North West where we teach girls digital skills and showcase the range of career opportunities in the technology sector. We aim to expand our work further, and run our programmes in schools across the whole of the United Kingdom. We also work closely with a network of organisations to help them diversify their recruitment process and culture, ensuring that they go on to attract a diverse range of talent. Like ourselves, STEMettes are a community interest company on a mission to inspire the next generation of women in STEM. They do this through a series of inspiring panel events, hackathons, exhibitions and mentoring schemes. We have long admired the work STEMettes do and couldn’t wait to write history with them.
During our three hour Edit-a-Thon we introduced the concept and basic skills required of editing to a group of 20 women and girls. We made a total of 10 edits to pages of notable women in STEM, including Ann Hornschemeier, Anita Sengupta and Ruth Payne-Scott, adding images and infoboxes, as well as amending the inaccuracies on some of the pages. 9 out of these 10 edits remain live on Wikipedia today, which we are extremely proud of.
The attendees of the event celebrate their achievements as new Wikipedia Editors
Much like Digital Science’s Edit-a-Thon for Ada Lovelace Day back in October 2018, our ultimate aim was also to inspire a group of diverse Editors to embark on their Wikipedia editing journey, and encourage them to continue to help improve the gender balance on Wikipedia one small edit at a time. After attending the Edit-a-Thon we were pleased to hear that all of the women and girls were confident in their editing ability and would continue to edit Wikipedia after the event. Following the event, one of our Editors said:
“I now know where to start and what is an appropriate source. Thanks for a super fun evening!”
We were so inspired by the women and girls who attended the event and we hope this newly formed group of Editors go on to publish an array of diverse articles, improving the representation issue both online and in real life.
These Edit-a-Thons are just one way in which you can help us achieve our mission. Find out more about how you can get involved here and follow us on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. To see more Tweets about the event view our Twitter moment here.
Introducing the Ohio Innovation Exchange - YouTube
Last August we announced we would be working with the Ohio Department of Higher Education to develop a statewide research expertise portal. The Department of Higher Education in Ohio and its technology consortium OH-TECH selected Digital Science from 15 competitive tender submissions to provide Higher Education in the State of Ohio with a custom solution.
Academia is looking for easier ways to engage and collaborate with industry and vice versa. Technology is breaking down cultural barriers and enabling this. This solution is enabling six Ohio universities to make their expertise accessible to interested parties from industry. Read about how the project unfolded here in our case study and understand the experiences of the project leaders and stakeholders.
Vision for public participation in environmental science produced at a national meeting in Stage 1 of Engaging Environments
An innovative project that will see researchers collaborate with diverse communities on issues in environmental science has been awarded £1·3 million through NERC’s Engaging Environments programme. The NERC Community for Engaging Environments project aims to engage a broad range of audiences, including those typically less represented in public engagement activities. The project takes an innovative approach that combines community development, storytelling and citizen science, enabling diverse communities to have a meaningful stake in discussing and tackling environmental science issues such as climate change and pollution.
Figshare was approached by Erinma Ochu, Salford University Lecturer and Figshare Ambassador, to develop a place to store and share the research outputs of a collaborative project she was a member of across eight universities. Their mission was to engage the public in environmental science, particularly climate change.
Erinma wanted to ensure that the research had been assigned a DOI and would be persistently available for other researchers and members of the public to access. The repository, powered by Figshare, will be a community showcase of videos, podcasts, maps, visualisations, immersive experiences, and more with contributions from the members of all eight participating universities. The objective will be to develop new insights from large scale citizen science projects and to support project impact and case study creation which can be measured using Figshare’s usage tracking services including views, downloads, citations, and Altmetrics.
Mark Hahnel, founder and CEO of Figshare commented:
“It’s great to be working with such an important cause as the NERC Community for Engaging Environments project. We’re excited to be able to provide them a space for collaborative data sharing, impact measuring, and persistent, open access for their community-led engagement project.”
Scismic and Rationally, two projects aiming to disrupt the academic space, are the latest recipients of the Catalyst Grant award for innovative startups.
Scismic Job Seeker is an online, diversity-promoting, automated recruiting platform for the biopharmaceutical industry. The platform matches scientists to jobs based on expertise and removes sources of bias, with its gender and race-blind matching algorithms, helping increase diversity in scientific hiring.
Co-founder Elizabeth Wu said:
“Our goal is to help all scientists, no matter their background, find workplaces that empower them to propel ground-breaking science. One major barrier to scientific innovation is workforce development.”
Co-founder Danika Khong added:
“Our market research and previous studies show that scientists from underrepresented groups face greater barriers in finding jobs, even though diversity has been shown to result in greater productivity and innovation. We will leverage our platform to address the lack of racial diversity in STEM. There are currently no widely accessible and scalable services that address diversity at the recruiting stage for scientists.”
The beta platform has so far attracted attention from biotech companies and pharma, as well as over 1,200 scientists so far, mostly in the Boston area. They hope to expand this year across the US and are also looking to enhance the platform with additional diversity and inclusion features.
Rationally is an online platform that guides good research design according to published standards (e.g. CONSORT, PCORI) and reduces predictable sources of irreplicability. Founded by Kristin Lindquist, who has worked at technology startups and in product design for over 10 years, the platform aims to guide researchers in their efforts to design more replicable, feasible and less biased experiments.
The founder argues the “publish or perish” incentivises researchers to find the interesting/anomalous over the uninteresting/replicable.
Kristin Lindquist commented:
“Compounding the problem, good research design is hard, peer review is untimely, and meticulous science isn’t readily distinguished from the sloppy. An epidemic of poor study design and R&D waste results. How do we get the 8 million researchers in the world to know about and adhere to better practices?
We’ve tried to reduce an ambiguous and complex process into a guided, step-by-step experience. It helps researchers think about how their study will be perceived in the meta-analysis process or by research reliability experts.”
Find out more about the Catalyst Grant here. Our next application deadline is 30 JUNE 2019.
Whilst Artificial intelligence (AI) has recently been front and centre of the digital healthcare revolution, the principles of FAIR (Findable; Accessible; Inter-operable; Re-usable) data underpins the successful implementation of this important analytical tool.
They will be focusing on the FAIRification of external data and the incredible impact FAIR is having across our industry.
The workshop will take place in London on 21st and 22nd May. The breakout sessions will explore how FAIR influences:
Integration and Ontologies
Technologies and Architecture
You will hear from a diverse range of speakers and thought leaders from CCC/Ixxus, Clarivate, Digital Science, Genomics England, GoFAIR, Janssen, Roche and Scibite. The workshop is designed to encourage strong interaction between participants and experts with a view to creating tangible next steps.
This is a unique opportunity for cross-industry collaboration and we look forward to seeing you there. Click here to register.
Figshare’s Mark Hahnel will be speaking at the workshop:
In recent years, we’ve seen the conversation move from data not only being open but being FAIR. This is a major shift considering we spent the early years of Figshare trying to convince researchers to share their data full stop. For every new feature we build at Figshare we have one eye on the FAIR principles so as a repository we are doing as much of the heavy lifting as possible for researchers. There is still a lot of work to be done to educate researchers on what is expected of them but the report highlights many new initiatives from across the research ecosystem, all pulling together in the same direction.
By making research outputs FAIR, there is the potential to move further, faster with research. By getting all outputs to a baseline when it comes to reusability, new correlations can be found in a systematic way by making use of Machine learning and AI.
This talk will focus on the balance between humans and machines when it comes to making research data FAIR. For example, ‘appropriate metadata’ is a very nuanced requirement. A metadata or subject-specific librarian may be able to determine this. Someone working in a similar field may be able to confirm that the research output has ‘all of the metadata required to understand and reproduce the research.’ However, for machines to be able to interpret this for every single field and subfield of research is a monumental task, one we will not see the results of any time soon. On the flip side, machine-readable licenses are a simple thing to implement, and a simple thing for a machine to check for (as the name suggests). It would be odd for a human to query this in a curation workflow. i.e. To check the API documentation or even landing page HTML.
There is a lot of data on the web today that adheres to some level of being FAIR. How do you find it all for your organisation? And what steps should you take to make the rest of it as FAIR as possible?
£319 includes conference fee, all meals + 1 night’s accommodation. Please register by 30th April 2019 at the latest. Click here to register.
For additional night(s) accommodation (bed & breakfast) at £152 per night. Please email Rebekah.Sidhu@marriotthotels.com.
The day rate will be the same as full conference fee including accommodation (£319). Please email firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to do this.
We are proud to welcome two US-based startups to the Digital Science family of companies: automated reproducibility assessment tool, Ripeta, and data science platform, Gigantum.
Daniel Hook, CEO of Digital Science, said:
“Reproducibility of research is one of the critical topics of modern times – if research is to remain trusted by the populations who fund it, then researchers must ensure that their research can be reproduced by others.”
Both companies are playing a key role in making scientific research reproducible and more transparent. Ripeta is developing a “credit report” for scientific publications to assess and help improve the transparency needed to effectively communicate research, while Gigantum is an emerging innovator in the area of data science platforms, supporting large-scale, data-oriented scientific research.
Leslie McIntosh, CEO of Ripeta, said:
“While technological innovations have accelerated scientific discoveries, they have complicated scientific reporting. Science is hard and reproducibility is important, so we need to make better science easier. We are developing the tools to make research methods transparent, enabling the verifiability, falsifiability and reproducibility of research. We are thrilled to receive this investment with the great team at Digital Science who provide a fantastic partnership. This will propel our work at Ripeta helping make scientific reporting more transparent.”
Dean Kleissas, Gigantum CTO, said:
“Despite wide adoption of open-source tools and growing willingness to share research code and data, we still can’t quite escape the evolving difficulties of publishing transparent and easily reproducible research for broad use and consumption. When we first spoke with Digital Science, I knew it was a good fit because we immediately clicked on the fact that best practices alone won’t do it. We need technological approaches that enable real changes in what people of all skill levels can do, not just the most skilled.”
As a technology company, we are passionate about the use and movement of data in and around research. Yet Digital Science is about more than just data points and stats. We care about the people behind the facts, and we want to showcase the incredible progress and unsung achievements of humans and technology across the global research landscape. We want to celebrate the change-makers.
A change-maker is something or someone that has disrupted the landscape for the better. The step-changes in progress on which we can build further. Today, on International Women’s Day, we want to kick off our new short video series with a truly incredible international woman, Professor Tebello Nyokong.
From a humble agricultural background, through the challenge of being told that science was too hard for her, to achieving scientific success on a global scale, Professor Nyokong embodies everything a change maker should be. In this series, we look forward to sharing more people and technologies behind the data that are changing the world for the better.