A new perspective on the second law of thermodynamics

How the entropy of quantum observables relates to one of the oldest problems in statistical physics

“The house always wins”

This is the famous saying about how casinos rig the payouts of their games to ensure that, over the long run, their profits always increase. No matter how well you play the game, over a long enough timescale, you’re guaranteed to leave with a loss.

The saying also serves as a nice metaphor for the infamous second law of thermodynamics, one of the most profound concepts in all of science. This is because, like casino profits, the law also deals with a quantity that inevitably increases over time: entropy. I’ve always been fascinated by this part of physics: I think it’s amazing how the law seems to just emerge naturally, almost spontaneously, just from considering how small systems come together to form a larger collective.

Yet despite the law being both incredibly well-tested and extensively justified on theoretical grounds, it hides a paradox that’s been debated by physicists for over a century. Today, our group released a preprint with a proposal for a new perspective on the problem, especially as it relates to thermodynamics in the quantum regime.

The second law states that the ‘entropy’ property of a system always increases until it reaches its maximum possible value. But finding the words to describe what this ‘entropy’ thing even means is tough. Very loosely speaking, it quantifies disorder. A system with higher entropy is less neat, more jumbled-up, or harder to succinctly describe. And so the second law says that if a system that’s neat and orderly is left on its own, it’s guaranteed to become more disordered. It’s possible to decrease the entropy of a specific object or area (or to maintain a low-entropy state somewhere), but the cost to do so will always be an increase in the entropy of a different object or area that more than makes up for the decrease.1

Entropy increases over time because systems we see in the everyday world are made of unimaginably huge numbers of constituent parts — literally septillions of particles, and these particles are jostling around effectively randomly. In doing so, there’s more ways for them to randomly jump into disordered configurations than into ordered ones. So over time, its ‘disorder’ will increase, until it reaches the maximum possible disorder. It’s a law of statistics, not physics!

But there’s a crucial, conceptual problem at the core of this story: namely, that if you actually consider an entire system on its own in isolation, its entropy shouldn’t be able to increase like this. In fact, it should remain constant for all time. This is the ‘paradox’ we tackled in our new paper.2

The key to understanding where this paradox comes from is to realise that entropy is intimately related to information theory, an under-appreciated but vital scientific development from the 20th century. In particular, there turns out to be a deep, fundamental connection between entropy as a measure of disorder, and another definition of entropy that measures information.

To explain this “information-theory entropy” consider the following three sequences of numbers:

  • A: 1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1
  • B: 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8
  • C: 7,8,3,1,4,6,4,5

Instead of writing sequence A, I could tell you that the sequence is just the number 1, printed eight times. Similarly, instead of writing sequence B, I could just tell you “consider the first eight natural numbers”. But I generated Sequence C by rolling eight 8-sided dice. The information is random. There’s no way to “compress” it. No succinct summary. The only way to tell you the sequence is to just list the numbers one by one.3

Sequences A and B are “low-entropy” — in a sense they contain “less” information than Sequence C does. This manifests as them being easier to compress, in the technical sense from computing (it’s directly related to how computers “zip” files). Entropy of this sort is sometimes referred to as measuring “surprisal” — the capacity for it to surprise you. It’s not surprising that the fourth value of Sequence A is 1 — they all are! But it is surprising that the fourth value of Sequence C is 1, since it could have been any number.

The “surprisal” entropy can also be understood in terms of probability distributions. If there’s surprisal in some result, that means that it’s not guaranteed to produce one specific result: there’s a probability of getting different outcomes. If you have a set of probabilities (e.g. for a regular six-sided dice, the set is just the number 1/6 repeated six times), then that defines an entropy. The less certain your outcome is, the higher this entropy value is (since there’s more chance to be surprised by the result). This is called the Shannon entropy, after Claude Shannon, the legendary “Father of the Information Age”.

So the question becomes: is there a second law for this type of information? Does the “informational” entropy of a physical system go up over time?

This is where things get tricky, because there’s a big conceptual problem here: information-based forms of entropy are, in a very real sense, subjective. For instance, Sequence C is randomly-generated, and would be impossible to predict in advance. But suppose I give you Sequence C, and then ask you “what’s the fourth value in the sequence?” You would then be able to just look at it and say “1”. The surprisal becomes zero!4

This explains where the paradox of the entropy of an isolated system comes from. If you have a complete description of such a system, then its entropy should remain constant — there’s no surprisal. So how can there be a second law of thermodynamics that says entropy goes up?

We’re hardly the first to address this. But in our new paper, Florian Meier, Tiago Debarba, Jake Xuereb, Marcus Huber, Maximilian Lock, and I reckon we have an interesting, novel perspective on the problem specifically for quantum systems. (In particular, credit goes to Max for the main idea, and to Florian for the bulk of the work, especially mathematical heavy-lifting that made the project possible.5) Our work draws heavily from recent work on the subject of equilibration on average, or closed-system equilibration, which also informs recent work of ours on the quantum measurement problem.

The crucial insight from our work is to think not about the entropy of the physical system itself, but rather of the entropy of observations of the system. On its own, this insight isn’t entirely new, but our work is the first to rigorously apply it to isolated quantum systems where, in principle, we should have access to all the information (meaning there should be zero surprisal).

By ‘observations of the system’, we mean this: whenever we ‘measure’ some physical thing, whether it’s something in the everyday world like a car, or a quantum object like an electron, we seek to extract some specific information from it. We call the thing we’re trying to measure an observable, like the speed of the car, or the spin of the electron. Whatever it is we’re measuring, there’s a probability distribution associated with it. Before we take the measurement, there’s a certain probability of getting outcome 1, a probability of getting outcome 2, and so on. (If there was only one possible outcome for the car’s speed measurement, why would we even measure it?) This probability distribution, like with the dice roll, has an entropy associated with it — the Shannon entropy of the observable.

By looking at the system from the perspective of an observable, we’re choosing to restrict ourselves to only measuring some of the information about the system. That means there’s the chance for surprisal again, so the entropy can change over time.6 Because of this, the story from before can kick in: for an observable looking at a large system, there’s lots of ‘moving parts’ involved, so it’s more likely to go from a more certain distribution of outcomes to a less certain one. If there’s a huge collection of electrons, you’re more likely to be surprised by measurements of their spin values at later times than at earlier ones.

Our paper showed that for an observable that’s looking at an isolated quantum system, its Shannon entropy will go up, and then it will eventually settle around a maximum value. This is just like what happens with other forms of entropy, and it’s exactly what the second law of thermodynamics would predict. We demonstrated this with rigorous mathematical proofs about the dynamics of the entropy, and also illustrated the argument with a numerical simulation that showed the principle in action.

All of which is to say that, yes, the second law of thermodynamics still holds even when looking at a quantum system that’s fully isolated from any surrounding environment. You just need to find the right questions to ask about it.

In telling this story, we’re following on in the footsteps of great thinkers from the early days of both quantum mechanics and statistical physics: Boltzmann, Wigner, von Neumann, Shannon, and more. These questions were being asked as far back as the 1900s, but they took until now to be properly addressed. This is thanks to the resurgence of quantum thermodynamics in recent decades, and this is just one of many questions from the very foundations of quantum theory that we hope to address with this emerging field.

  1. It’s important to note that entropy is quantifiable. It can be assigned a specific numerical value. That’s what allows us to say “the entropy of object A went down by 5 units (or something), so the entropy of object B had to go up by 6 units to compensate.” If you subtract all the entropy decreases from all the entropy increases across the whole universe, the result will always be positive: more entropy is gained than lost. ↩︎
  2. Note that this is separate from the famous “Arrow of Time” problem (which I’ve covered for SciShow in the past). We mainly don’t address that in our work — we don’t try to explain why the past is low-entropy, we take it as a given, though we do briefly discuss the assumption. ↩︎
  3. The sequences “1111…” and “1234…” aren’t directly comparable due to subtleties in exactly how a source would generate them, so it’s not quite right to compare their entropies in this way, but the general point still stands. ↩︎
  4. Or imagine I don’t give you Sequence C in advance, but I do tell you it was generated by rolling 8d8. You’re a lot more likely to guess the next number correctly (a 1 in 8 chance) than if I didn’t tell you anything about how the sequence was generated (a 1 in ???? chance), so its surprisal is lower than it would be otherwise ↩︎
  5. My main contribution was some numerical simulations: writing code to illustrate our results in the form of fancy plots. By no means the main attraction but I’d like to think I also helped somewhat on the conceptual side! ↩︎
  6. There’s a deeper philosophical problem here, one which our work arguably leaves unanswered: how can entropy be both “subjective” in that it’s observer-dependent, and also “objective” in that it quantifies something real and physical about our universe? ↩︎


So the short version is: I’ve been doing freelance writing for the science YouTube channel SciShow, and for SciShow Space. I’ve been a fan of their work (and their sister channel Crash Course) for a while, so this was a pretty exciting opportunity to come my way. I’m writing scripts on all sorts of topics for them, and (hopefully) getting better as I’ve been going.

This post will serve as a hub for all my SciShow activity – basically whenever a video comes out featuring one of my scripts, I’ll update this post with it.

Here’s a playlist of all of the videos I’ve worked on: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLCMyt4hQcjicMjh1aYbSFQAkBIv22h8qh

And, in reverse-chronological order by release date, here’s all the videos with scripts by yours truly:

Continue reading SciShow!

A year in writing

The last year has been… long. But I’m currently sitting in my hotel room after a great two week holiday in Italy and a lovely four day conference in Brittany (where I won a poster prize, of all things) so I have a bit of time to go over all of the stuff I’ve written over the past year or so.

If you’re interested in a list of everything I’ve written over the last year, here’s a complete rundown:

  • In September I went to the Labour Party conference to represent Scientists for Labour, which I’m on the committee for. It was an amazing experience and I wrote about it here. With this year’s conference shaping up to be… interesting, it might be worth seeing a bit of how last year’s went.
  • For UCL’s Pi Media society I wrote this post on their blog about the winner of last year’s physics Nobel Prize, and why he also sort of has an Oscar!
  • I contributed to an article in Astronomy and Geophysics magazine about the outreach work I did last year. It’s behind a paywall (I’m sure if you google around you can find a certain academic literature piracy site that can help you solve that problem) but the link is here.
  • I’m still doing work for Chalkdust magazine, including contributing to features, proofreading articles, and wearing the t-shirt on holiday so I can send nice snaps to the crew! Here’s me in St. Malo, Brittany, during the conference excursion to the town.

  • In terms of writing for Chalkdust, in March’s edition of the magazine, I had a cute, tongue-in-cheek, one-page article about machine learning.
  • For the Chalkdust blog in June I had a piece about numerical integration.
  • And yeah I also wrote… this. I’m actually kind of pleased with how it turned out, despite not really wanting to write it and only doing so to vent my feelings. Check it out if you want but be warned as it’s long and kind of personal.

On the academic side of things, two papers I contributed to about the outreach work I did last year were published. Links to them are here and here, and they’re open access so you don’t need to worry about any paywalls. I have a small paper about my actual PhD work in press, and I’m writing this little thing I’m calling a “thesis” which should hopefully be done by this time next year!

That’s all for now. See you soon!


With the Justice League movie threatening promising to hit theatres soon, I thought it’d be fun to do a little “Elseworlds” thought experiment. Comics are fond of ‘parallel universe’ stories, where our world is presented in a slightly altered form to compare and contrast with. In DC comics they’re often called “Elseworld” stories, such as “Communist Superman“,  “Victorian Batman“, “Wild West Justice League“…

In that spirit, here’s my Elseworlds tale: what if Marvel movies sucked and DC ones were popular? In that Elseworlds:

  • Ben Affleck’s Batman trilogy is wrapped up in 2013 after a good start, weak sequel (to set up Justice League) and strong third showing
  • Can audiences learn to love an earnest, pure-hearted superhero wearing red and blue tights? The Russo Brother’s Superman trilogy emphatically said yes
  • Joss Whedon’s Justice League (2012) blowns audiences away. Lex Luthor is perfectly cast and recurs as a character in several future DCCU movies
  • Benedict Cumberbatch gains praise for his entertaining portrayal of obscure character Dr. Fate
  • After the underwhelming Justice League: Age of Amazo, the teaser for Justice League: New Gods leaves Comic Con’s Hall H stunned and awed
  • (Josh Brolin is playing Darkseid, of course)
  • Gina Rodriguez’s fans are complaining that Hawkgirl still hasn’t been given a movie yet, despite being in two Justice League movies!
  • On the other hand, Stephen Amell’s Justice League TV spinoff, Green Arrow, is going strong
  • Brandon Routh sees his shot at redemption after Superman Returns with a big-budget Atom movie. The shrinking superhero gets mediocre reviews after some controversy with Edgar Wright
  • This April sees the release of Legion of Superheroes Vol. 2 to critical acclaim
  • This July sees the release of Shazam: Homecoming after DC finally secured the film rights to their beloved teen superhero
  • After two underwhelming Wonder Woman movies, the trailer for Taika Waititi’s Wonder Woman: Clash of the Titans actually looks super fun!
  • Agents of STAR, a TV show set in the DCCU, finds its niche after a rocky start
  • Powerless, an office comedy about a superhero insurance company set in the DC universe, is cancelled aft-oh wait that actually happened.
  • Gotham still sucks

And on the Marvel side:

  • Man of Iron is just… bad
  • Captain America: Civil War forces Rotten Tomatoes to re-define its badness scale to count how bad it is. The conflict ends when Iron Man finds out Captain America’s dad is called Howard… The Duck
  • Somehow a Masters of Evil movie gets made. Jared Leto’s Doctor Doom is panned as being the worst incarnation of the character ever
  • Captain Marvel is awesome! Avengers is re-tooled to have as much of her as possible in it. Speaking of…
  • Joss Whedon is brought in to script doctor Zac Snyder’s Avengers movie at the last minute. Mere months from its release it’s not looking good for the tentpole movie
  • The Thor movie is on its third director, two years behind schedule. Is re-named Ragnarok to set up the destruction/reset button of the whole universe
  • A flood of various movies based on minor characters are announced. No one knows what the hell is going on. It’s just a big mess…

The moral of the story here is: DC, get your shit together! Look how deep into your insane continuity you could be by now! Marvel made us feel feels for Rocket Raccoon and Groot, but you’re nowhere near Matter-Eater Lad, you’re still stuck on ‘Batman and Superman are friends’. I want to see the look on respectable critics’ faces when they have to take Granny Goodness seriously! But you have a long way to go to reach that point! I hope you figure it out.

Recent Writing

I’ve written a few popsci pieces over the past year. So here’s a quick update with a bullet point list of some of my recent articles/contributions:

  • I wrote a piece for UCL’s main student magazine, Pi Magazine, which was about Alan Turing, AI and AI research. It was called The Thought Experiment (in the November 2016 issue).
  • I’ve been doing a lot of work behind the scenes for UCL’s Chalkdust Magazine, a magazine run by mathematics postgraduates about maths, from a popsci perspective. Notably, that includes contributing several (bad) jokes to a recent Dear Dirichlet column which appeared in the magazine.
  • More impressively, a half-page space filler piece about my ‘Least Favourite Number’ on page 8 of issue 5 (the Spring 2017 issue) of Chalkdust actually got me some ‘hate mail’ (tongue firmly in cheek, i suspect/hope) from fans of the number I ‘insulted’ in my piece!
  • Back at Pi Magazine, I wrote an article about exoplanets in the most recent issue (May 2017), called An Interstellar Exodus. I was quite pleased with how this one turned out!

Most interestingly, besides the recent popsci writing, I also made a short popsci video for YouTube called What does an atom look like? This video was done in collaboration with the PhysFilmMakers project I’ve been working with this year. I’m quite pleased with how this turned out (especially since, barring my GCSE in Media Studies from 10 years ago, I’ve never done this sort of thing before), so do check it out.

For completeness (more so I don’t forget about them than anything else!) here’s my other contributions to Pi and Chalkdust Magazines over the past two years: one online piece for Pi on the Six Degrees of Separation from November 2015, one online piece for Chalkdust on the Twelve Days of Christmas from December 2016, and one short column in the Pi print magazine about open access publication from the January 2016 issue.

Coming soon: I am a named, contributing (though by no means main!) author on two upcoming academic papers concerning the outreach work I have been doing over the past few months. I have no idea when those will be published. I also wrote a more “general audience” piece (with contributions from my colleagues in the project) about one of these outreach projects for the Astronomy and Geophysics magazine, which (hopefully!) will appear in its October issue. I’m looking forward to everyone seeing that because it represents many months of hard work by me and my colleagues (ok mostly my colleagues they did most of the heavy lifting I just came along for the ride), and it’s an impactful project we all believe in quite strongly.

Besides that, it’s been a busy few months since I last wrote on this blog (in March). Between a holiday, the snap general election (where I campaigned a lot for a certain underdog red team…), summer conferences, outreach projects, some writing work, and moving flat… I’ve had a lot on my mind. Not to mention I even do a PhD sometimes 😉

More updates coming soon!


Voice of the Future Part 2

Here’s a more in-depth description of the questions and answers from the Voice of the Future event.

My question was to Chi Onwurah, the first person in the hotseat. You can watch it at this link (14:24:30-14:26:27). The question was: “The government is promoting apprenticeships, but many jobs are still advertised as requiring a degree, ruling out those who took a non-academic route. What should we do about this?”

As a last-minute substitute, I didn’t contribute to the question, but it’s a good one! Apprenticeships are very important alternatives to university, and they should be treated as legitimate alternative routes to good careers in a variety of fields, including scientific ones such as lab technicians and forensics.

Thankfully, she had a very good answer to this very good question! It began with a canned response outlining Labour’s policy on “advanced apprenticeships” (distinguishing itself from what Labour claims is the Tories’ focus on lower-skilled ones). But it’s good policy, so I’m happy. She also talked about changing the culture surrounding apprenticeships, suggesting we could increase transparency by highlighting people who have become successful via the apprenticeship route. She also noted that when she began her career as an engineer (after graduating from Imperial College!) many of the CTOs she met had come through the apprenticeship route, and lamented that this was no longer the case.

Chi also had great responses to other great questions. These included a nod to the excellent new film about NASA engineers called Hidden Figures in response to a question about mathematical literacy in schools, and the great quote “we shouldn’t change the meaning of science for one man” in reference to a certain orange-faced POTUS… She also spoke excellently on issues faced by women in STEM. Her whole section is worth a watch; she’s a thoroughly impressive MP.

Mark Walport was up next and also had some interesting things to say. Notably, he endorsed the STEAM acronym, adding “arts” to the usual science, tech, engineering and maths acronym. He also encouraged more reporting of negative results in science, discussed how to act when science and public opinion collide, and how to write policy governing self-driving cars.

After Mark came Jo “No, You’re Thinking Of My Brother” Johnson MP. For me this was the most interesting part of the event. He gave some good answers where he defended so-called blue skies research, endorsed evidence-based policy, and expressed support for open-access publication. But of course, he also defended a lot of government policy I’m not too happy about, including the TEF, immigration, and, of course, (*long, deep sigh*) Brexit.

He gave the usual platitudes around valuing collaborations with EU research collaborators, but as they say in Westeros, words are wind. It’s one thing to say how much you care about preserving UK/EU collaborations, it’s another to want to burn every bridge we have with Europe, as the May government he is part of is doing.

He was also asked an important question by the Geological Society: “why does the government continue to include international students in the immigration cap?” I felt his response was not good enough. For a start, in what I thought was a typical patrician Tory remark, he said “this conversation produces a lot of heat and not much light”, which sounds like the kind of thing you’re free to say when you’re not directly affected by these policies, unlike a lot of people I know personally.

He claimed “there’s no limit to the number of international students that can come to the UK”, which may be true, but the government does currently include international students in immigration figures. (Though as of this week that may change!) This is a highly charged and provocative statistic which has been the source of much political chest-thumping in recent years, mainly thanks to UKIP and the tabloids.

The Tories infamously pledged (and re-pledged!) to reduce net migration to below 100k a year, and, as Home Secretary, Theresa May introduced punishing laws concerning international students who graduate to help achieve this (unachievable…) goal. Clearly including international students in immigration figures produces tangible effects on policy, and Jo seemed to be either wilfully or ignorantly denying this fact as he tried to get away with slipping a pretty big caveat into his defence of the government’s policy in this area.

Finally, Jo was replaced with four members of the actual committee: Stephen Metcalfe, Dr Tania Mathias, Matt Warman and Carol Monaghan (three Tory and one SNP MP respectively). Anna, a friend of mine representing the Council for the Mathematical Sciences, asked a great question about how AI and policy intersect, including a discussion of “robot taxes”. Another person asked about the UK space industry (something I’m involved with in a small way), we got the inevitable “post-truth politics” discussion, and more Brexit platitudes which my friend dismissed rather effectively (but to be fair, Tania, one of the Tories on the panel, did rebel against the government to protect EU residents post-Brexit…)

With respect to their oratory abilities, amicability, and intelligence, no MP stood out as being notably better or worse than any other. They all seemed like fine parliamentarians. But it’s no secret that I prefer Labour to the Conservatives, and so it’s inevitable that I’d conclude I was more impressed by Chi’s answers than Jo’s (though to be fair I liked a lot of what Tania had to say). While everyone had great, positive points to make which showed they clearly understood the challenges faced by people working in STEM, I couldn’t look past Jo’s bad defences of what I think are some bad government policies. I wish I could have scrutinised what he had to say, to be honest. I still stand by what I wrote in the first post, though. This was an incredible event I’m very grateful to have been a part of.

Grilling MPs at Voice of the Future 2017


If you had the chance to ask an MP one question, what would it be?

A few weeks ago I blogged about writing to your MP as an act of civic responsibility. Yesterday, alongside dozens of other young scientists and engineers, I was given the amazing privilege and opportunity to ask an MP a question directly.

House of Commons select committees are small committees of MPs. Their job is to scrutinise the government on behalf of parliament, and they do this by inviting witnesses to testify before the committee. In these meetings, the committee sit around a famous horseshoe-shaped table, with a witness placed in the ‘hotseat’ in front of them. An infamous example from recent memory is the grilling Sir Philip Green faced from the Business, Innovation and Skills committee over the BHS pensions scandal.


The Science and Technology Committee is another such committee, charged with scrutinising science-related government policy, from the environment to education to research funding and beyond. They meet and hear from all sorts, including academics and experts. But yesterday, the tables were turned for the Royal Society of Biology’s fifth annual Voice of the Future event.


At this event, young scientists from several of the UK’s learned societies such as CaSE, the Biochemical Society, and even two high schools, were invited to Parliament to reverse the usual format of the select committee, and ask the committee members key questions on science and tech policy issues taken from the suggestions of young scientists.


As the RSB’s director of parliamentary affairs Dr Stephen Benn (brother of Hilary Benn!) noted:

“This is a unique event – in no other part of Parliament is the normal select committee format completely reversed so that MPs have to answer questions rather than ask them. It is important that policy makers use reliable evidence in their decisions, and today’s young scientists and engineers will be vital for this in the future.”


The event had four parts. First, Chi Onwurah, Labour MP for Newcastle Central & Shadow Minister for Industrial Strategy, was put in the hotseat and asked questions. Then she was replaced by Professor Sir Mark Walport, Chief Scientific Adviser to the government, followed by Tory Minister for Universities and Science Jo Johnson MP (brother of Boris Johnson!), and finally by members of the committee proper: four MPs led by Tory MP Stephen Metcalfe.

Thanks to a last-minute drop out from one of the scheduled attendees from the Institute of Physics, I was given the opportunity to come to the event and ask a question to Chi Onwurah MP and hear her reply. You can watch it at this link (14:24:30 – 14:26:27).


After her session ended, Sir Mark Walport took the hotseat, and a different IoP member got a turn to represent the organisation. I went to sit with the audience and watched the rest of the event unfold. (I also began furiously livetweeting!)

There were lots of good questions from all of the participants, and plenty of interesting responses from the MPs in question. I wrote about them in more detail in another blog post.

The committee closed the panel with a discussion of how they became MPs. Dr Tania Mathias, a Tory MP, concluded with a great quote: “you’re probably more political than you realise,” which I appreciated. They also gave out some “I Heart Evidence” badges, which they all wear on the committee.


Select committees are a vital part of our democracy. They’re a place for all kinds of experts to inform policymakers and keep their decisions rooted in reality (in principle…). As this event was happening, MPs were in the Commons debating a major U-turn on a key part of the government’s week-old budget statement. That may be where the ‘glamour’ (and certainly the media) was, but the grunt work of government was happening in our room, as the scientists (and maybe political leaders?) of tomorrow got a taste of how our democracy functions, all while getting to voice our concerns to the Powers That Be.


Of course it was scripted. Of course all the questions and answers were canned. But they were damn good questions written by young scientists, and they needed to be asked. The fact that the MPs were made to understand that young scientists care about these issues (funding, Brexit, tech policy, education, etc.) is an important thing in and of itself. They work for us, and whether by writing letters, going to protests, or getting involved in events like this, they must never be allowed to forget that.

I want to express my gratitude to the IoP for allowing me to fill in at the last minute. I want to thank my friend Ben for helping to arrange for me to come. I want to thank all the friends I saw at the event (and thank you, Iulia, for your expert-level livetweeting). I want to thank all the MPs who came, all the Royal Society of Biology staff, especially Dr Stephen Benn, for organising everything, and the staff in the learned societies and in Westminster who made it all possible. It’s cheesy to say but it’s an event I’ll never forget.

Write To Your MP!

These are dark times, with democracy under threat in a way we haven’t seen in decades. But for now we do live in a democracy. We still decide who rules us. They are not our masters; we are theirs: They work for us. I just wrote to my MP. You should write to yours.

The message was sent using a template provided by writetothem.com, partially based on a script provided by the Science Is Vital advocacy group, but it’s almost entirely my own words, my own feelings, my own call to action. If there’s an issue you feel strongly about, I encourage you to add your own voice to the shout.

Here’s the full text of the message I just sent to my local MP, a lovely man named Andy Slaughter whom I have met several times:

“Dear Andrew Slaughter,

My name is Tom Rivlin, and I have been a constituent of yours for several years now. I am a member of the Labour Party and have met you on a few occasions when campaigning for Sadiq Khan, for Stronger In, and more, and have always been impressed and inspired by your personality and your politics. For the first time I feel compelled to write to you on an issue which I feel very strongly about:

Like many of your constituents, I attended Imperial College, one of the greatest scientific institutions in the world. I am currently a physics PhD student at another great UK university, UCL, so the future of science in the UK is important to me. Recently I have become concerned that that future is under threat.

On a personal level, the EU-funded research grant which sustained my research group for many years ended recently, leaving our future in question. I know from speaking to friends and colleagues that I am not the only one in such a situation, and I have no doubt that many of your constituents at Imperial and elsewhere are facing similar funding concerns in the short and long term.

Furthermore, like many of my colleagues, I wasn’t born in this country. In my short time as a researcher, I have collaborated with people from both inside and outside the EU, and many of my colleagues are now extremely concerned about their future place in Britain. Regardless of the actual immigration situation we end up with after Brexit is settled, the rhetoric alone is sufficient to prompt many scientists to consider leaving, as post-referendum polling has shown:


With all of this in mind, as your constituent I have two requests:

– Whilst I accept that eventually you must vote to trigger Article 50, and understand the difficult electoral position Labour finds itself in over the issue, I see no reason why the ratified bill must be on whatever terms it is first submitted to Parliament with. Whilst I would greatly prefer it if freedom of movement could be preserved, at the very minimum I would be disappointed if you voted for an Article 50 bill without the amendments proposed by Labour:


– There is an Early Day Motion proposal concerning the future of funding in the UK post-Brexit: EDM 772 (full text attached as postscript). It would bring me a great amount of relief to know my MP has signed this bill.

Thank you so much for taking the time to read my concerns.

Yours sincerely,

Tom Rivlin

Full EDM text:
Access to EU research programmes

That this House recognises the importance of maintaining the UK’s world-leading research base; notes that this is vital to the UK’s international reputation and to its future health, environment and economy; emphasises that science is international and depends on the freedom of all researchers to seek collaboration and training around Europe and the world; further recognises the unique collaborative opportunities provided by EU research programmes through international movement of researchers allowing skills and knowledge to be shared; further notes that the UK is a net beneficiary of the EU research budget which currently provides 10 per cent of UK public-funded research; and calls on the Government to preserve access to these vital EU research funding programmes whatever the form of the UK’s future relations with the EU.

Link: www.parliament.uk/edm/2016-17/772 ”

Don’t give in to despair: keep fighting!

The Thought Experiment

I’ve written another article for Pi Magazine, UCL’s student magazine. This one is about the Turing test, and its connection to modern AI research. You can find it online at this link, on page 16. The whole new issue is great, too, so do make sure to check it out at some point!

The n Days of Christmas Remastered

Last Christmas I made a blog post called The n Days of Christmas.

This year I’ve ‘remastered’ it, and it has been published as Day 1 of the Chalkdust 2016 Advent Calendar! I’m really pleased with how it’s turned out, so please do check it out!

The n days of Christmas

Chalkdust have some great content prepared for Advent 2016, so do make sure to check them out daily over the course of the month!

Merry Christmas, happy holidays, etc etc!