Archive for August, 2010

After many years of sitting through undergraduate lectures, I’m ready to give my definitive criteria for what makes a good lecturer. I’ve never lectured, but I know what I like!

My three criteria are these: confidence, enthusiasm and empathy …

1. Confidence
Nothing ruins a lecture faster than the thought: this person doesn’t know what they’re talking about. We’ve all experienced the frustration of being taught the wrong thing, and then having to go back and relearn something. Lecture courses take a lot of work: notes, exercises, summaries. I want to know that my hard work will be rewarded, that when I am confused, it is just me. If I just keep working and thinking, the fog will clear. If the lecturer lacks confidence, it sends the message that my confusion may just be a result of the lecturer’s confusion. The fog may never clear, because the fog is in the mind of the teacher. I might as well get a good textbook and teach myself. (more…)


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With so many preachers preaching so often, they should know a thing or two about public speaking. In fact, the skills of great orators like Martin Luther King owe much to their training as preachers. Here are three lessons that scientists can learn.

1. Take home message
The classic sermon outline contains three main points, summarised in a single sentence or even a single word. The three words often begin with the same letter, as a memory device. Here’s an example, from theologian W.H. Griffith Thomas in 1930 on the definition of faith (via Alister McGrath: “If you like the letter C then you’re in for a treat!”): (more…)

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The power of a passionate speech to inspire change is nowhere more clearly seen than in those who are trying to transform an entire society. Here, I will be looking at two great speeches from the American civil rights movement.

Martin Luther King was perhaps the most prominent leader of the movement. He won the Nobel peace prize in 1964, and his most comprehensive statement of his mission is his brilliant Letter from Birmingham Jail. His most famous speech is undoubtedly his “I have a dream” oration, delivered in 1963 to a crowd of over 200,000 at a march on Washington.

Malcolm X was also an activist for the rights of African-Americans, arguing passionately for black nationalism – that black Americans should form their own independent nation. In 1964, he delivered “The Ballot or the Bullet” to a Methodist church in Ohio.

Both men were brilliant speakers, and if you haven’t listened to these speeches then I’d recommend it before reading on. Audio of the speeches can be found on the Wikipedia pages.

What can a scientist learn from these men? I draw three lessons.

1. Be memorable
Familiarise yourself with this convenient list of rhetorical terms. These are all ways to imprint your message on the minds of your audience. You will hear many of them in the speeches of King and Malcolm X. Here are some examples:

Martin Luther King: (Here’s the audio) There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: “For Whites Only.” We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.

Malcolm X: Take it into the United Nations, where our African brothers can throw their weight on our side, where our Asian brothers can throw their weight on our side, where our Latin-American brothers can throw their weight on our side, and where 800 million Chinamen are sitting there waiting to throw their weight on our side. Let the world know how bloody [Uncle Sam’s] hands are. Let the world know the hypocrisy that’s practiced over here. Let it be the ballot or the bullet. Let him know that it must be the ballot or the bullet. (more…)

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P=NPJust in time for the completion of the SUMS Puzzle Hunt 2010 (go Team Awesome!), & in memory of an earlier post of mine celebrating an attempted disproof of the Riemann hypothesis, here is a link to an attempted disproof of the equivalance of P and NP. I for one hope that Geraint will reprise his earlier effort at nonchalant disdain, though in the end I expect T. S. Trudgian, newly delivered to Lethbridge, to have the final say.

My next post will be less cliquey, I promise.

Update: Here is the only commentary I have come across so far that talks about the proof and possible objections in detail. Graeme also noted (in one of the ellipses below) that crowdsourcing was an excellent way to tackle evaluation of the proof. Little did I realise he had a concrete reference point in mind, but here is the P!=NP wiki.

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The instrument panel of the Ferrari 458 Italia features a small screen that can display a SatNav, or a speedometer, but not both at the same time. Mr Heisenberg sends his congratulations.

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The speeches of great political leaders mark some of the great turning points of history. Perhaps the best examples are the stirring speeches of Winston Churchill, which were a great inspiration to Britain during the second world war:

… if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, “This was their finest hour.”

Scientists rarely (if ever) need to be this dramatic. However, there are a number of lessons that we can learn from the great speeches of political leaders.

1. Be brief

On November 19, 1863, in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Edward Everett delivered a two-hour oration at a ceremony to dedicate a new cemetery to bury the victims of the American civil war. Everett was a politician and a famed orator, and his speech was well received. After the speech had finished and a hymn had been sung, President Abraham Lincoln rose to deliver a brief dedication.

Lincoln’s two-minute “Gettysburg Address” is one of the greatest speeches of all time, memorised by generations of American students and carved in stone at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. Everett himself commented to Lincoln: “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

The lesson here is straightforward: Be sincere; be brief; be seated (F.D.Roosevelt).  Never, ever go overtime. Audiences always appreciate an early finisher, and there are few things more annoying than someone who goes overtime. (more…)

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