Not-So-Instant Karma

At school, the Biology lab with its mercury vapour lamp and slightly smelly combination of plants, fruit flies, toads and spiny mice seemed a strangely cozy and welcoming place. Our teachers, Mr Hugall and Mr Allen, made biology seem easy, interesting and important. I feel I owe them so much.

One of my Biology teachers, Mr Allen, seen in 1989.

One of my Biology teachers, Mr Allen, seen in 1989.

The most important thing I learned was that science wasn’t just about facts that someone else had already figured out, it was about finding the answers to new, unsolved mysteries.

We were lucky to get to design and run our own experiments for the first time as part of our A-level. It’s a bit hazy, but I did mine on human hearing and looked at the accuracy with which people could tune one frequency to match another. Nearly 30 years later, I am still fascinated by the biology of human behaviour, still designing and running experiments. And now I am teaching my own students, and they’re going on to devise and run their own experiments and making discoveries of their own.

I know that at least one member of my small A-level class of six or seven went on to a career in cancer research and several others including myself went on to degrees and research careers in the biosciences. That was just one year, so there must have been many, many more.

Today I learned that when Mr Allen was diagnosed with a large lymphoma in his chest, his life was saved by treatment with a new, potent and highly selective drug. I am happy to say he is fit and well. It seems karmic that he was able to benefit from the science that he’d spent so many years working to inspire.

His son, Jeremy, who was in our class, is now doing a sponsored triathlon for Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. So it seems like a good opportunity to me say a proper thank you to my teacher, and to inspirational teachers more generally. And I hope that if you’ve been inspired by a great teacher, you’ll consider making a donation, too.

Lecture: Principles of Neural Representation (Part 1)

I am reviewing my lectures on Principles of Neural Representation, so I decided to post a video of the first one from last year.

My 10,000th tweet

Twitter is great but (perhaps because) you only get 140 characters. So this post mentions some of the highlights of my twitter experience so far. If you don’t know twitter at all or you don’t “get” it, don’t start here with my 10,000 tweet. Start with my post on “What is the point of twitter?” instead. Sign up, and you’ll see that it can be great fun, and very useful too.

I created my @tom_hartley account on 14th May 2010 (I’d been tweeting from another account since 2008). It’s rather brought me out of my shell.

In twitter terms, I am an old hand. In real life I am not quite as old, wrinkled or bald yet.

In twitter terms, I am an old hand. In real life I am not quite as old, wrinkled or bald yet.

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The White Dot: A Parable

The image shows a Nigerian Doll from the Californian African American Museum.

Originally posted anonymously at in Sept 2011. It had 563 views in March 2013. Posterous is now closing down, so I am reposting here. Not my normal style! Enjoy this parable of academic publishing and look forward to the time when the white dot comes to Science!

Dear cousin, I feel I must relate the tale of an island we recently visited in the midst of an archipelago kingdom. The inhabitants of the island had established a remarkable economy, based on a trade in dolls. These dolls were beautiful artifacts indeed. Carved from wood, dressed in gaudy clothes and garlanded in extraordinary symbols, each was exquisite and unique. One fashioned in the image of a revered ancestor, another like a gargoyle. Some took the form of gnomes or sprites or other weird and fanciful creatures, and each bore a coloured dot on the tip of its nose.

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Science v Philosophy

Any friendly philosophers or scientists fancy getting together for a discussion on G+ Hangouts in the next few days?

UPDATE: The Hangout is planned for 21/2/2013 1730 GMT. Comment here or tweet @tom_hartley for an invitation. You will need to provide your preferred gmail address (but you should do this privately, e.g., by twitter DM or by adding me on G+).

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How to Convince Me

Persuasion. An ineffective approach. from

In an earlier post, I explained why I sometimes feel that reason is greatly overrated; people often leave unnoticed gaps in an explanation and are not good at spotting these. In addition we are all prone to various cognitive biases which incline us to believe things when we shouldn’t and not to believe things when we should.

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Dr Who or Professor Who? On Academic Email Etiquette


This post was provoked by a discussion with a UK-based professor (let’s call her Rebecca Smith, not her real name) who mentioned on twitter that she had received an inquiry about a PhD application by email from someone addressing her as “Hey Rebecca!” Was this a faux-pas on the applicant’s part?

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