05 Aug 2013

Guest Blog: From Moon Landings to Collaborative Science

By Lily

This is a guest blog by John Hammersley, co-founder of Write LaTeX, one of our BGV 2013 cohort. You can read more from him here.


Today would have been the late Neil Armstrong’s 83rd birthday, and as it happens my sister was born on the very day Neil and Buzz landed on the moon back in 1969. I’ve always been a scientist, and I think this yearly anniversary helped fuelled a fascination with space and science that’s always stayed with me.

I’m now working on a project to help enable better collaboration in science, and it’s been an interesting ride transitioning from academia to start-up, with some commercial R&D and corporate projects in the middle. I’m now lucky enough to working amongst a great group of people — the BGV summer cohort of 2013 — trying to tackle social and education problems in innovative new ways.

Why these changes in direction? I guess because I grew up wanting to make a difference, and so a friendly working environment combined with a being involved in a potentially game-changing project is what I’ve always aimed for.

An academic start

Although I did consider a career in the space sector, I ended up going down the more theoretical route of mathematical physics when I headed off to university about 13 years ago. As I was greatly enjoying research (and the whole university environment) when I finished my undergraduate degree, it seemed natural to stay in academia and go on to do a PhD.

I think my PhD was fairly typical — I wrote three papers, which went on to form the bulk of my thesis, and gave various talks and seminars on my research. I recently dug out my first talk to use as an example of how to create a presentation in LaTeX  (although it has far too many slides, and far too many words per slide!)

Null geodesics in pure AdS slide
My first presentation during my PhD – click the image to see the full slide deck.

By the end of my PhD, however, I had decided academia wasn’t for me — there were so many papers being published in my field every day (all available on the arXiv) that I couldn’t see how I could make a difference. I realised that being able to see the real-world outcomes of my work was one of my main motivations, and so I left academia to look for an opportunity to work on cutting-edge technology, an opportunity which I found with Ultra PRT.

Ultra PRT – driverless cars of the future, today

I’ve written about Ultra before and I don’t to spend too long on it here — suffice to say it was an amazing company to work for, hit by the slowdown in spend after the financial crisis of late 2008, but which managed to adapt and prosper nevertheless.

What I really enjoyed there was the sense of working in one large family, where everyone was very passionate and very committed to delivering what is a revolutionary new mode of transportation — the 2-years-and-counting of successful operations at Heathrow airport after a complex design and build contract are testament to the ability and continued enthusiasm of the Ultra team.

In late 2012, and after five years at Ultra, I decided it was time to strike out – my colleague John Lees-Miller had created an excellent prototype collaboration tool (think ‘Google docs for science’) which was gaining traction, and he was looking for a partner to launch it with. So on the 31st December 2012 we created Writelatex Limited, and so began in earnest the science start-up I’m currently working on.

Collaborative open science

What does ‘collaborative open science’ really mean? To me it means the ability to work together with scientists from any discipline, in any continent, writing a paper with not just the words and formulae included, but the science and data that underpins it included too.

This is what we’re working towards with writeLaTeX (and was also the basis for its creation when John and I were working on transport research papers such as this).

Working with everyone at Bethnal Green Ventures (the other teams, the alumni, the mentors and their network) has helped highlight the wider social context of our project – many of the most pressing social challenges in today’s world (e.g. complex health problems, behaviour issues, computing and technology advancement) require more collaboration, and science needs to be more responsive and engaging to citizens to make it meaningful and relevant to people.

It’s given me renewed belief that what were working on really can make a difference, and that the scale of this difference could be huge. It might not be of course – there’s lots of challenges ahead, and we’ve had a lot of conflicting advice over the past five weeks, but I’m optimistic.

What advice would I give to anyone starting out in their career? Know what you really want from your work and pick the opportunities that give you the best chance of achieving it. Or just work with like-minded people, that usually makes for good times regardless. 🙂