The Calamity Sum: Predicting Seizures in the Brain and Economy

An equation that can reliably predict crashes in financial markets and some types of epileptic seizures has been identified in a joint-study by Sussex University in the UK, and Charles Sturt University, Australia.

‘Dynamical systems’ – systems featuring complex interactions between large groups of interacting elements seen in, for example, economic structures and processes in the brain, were analysed to pinpoint transition phases – the moment before a system ‘crashes.’

Published in Physical Review Letters, the study shows how information dynamics could be used as a predictive tool. By accurately pinpointing the moment of disorder in a system, researchers believe that financial market crashes, some forms of epilepsy, disorder in climate systems and even malfunction in the human immune system could be potentially prevented.

Using computer simulations and mathematics, researchers showed how a measure of information flow reaches a peak known as a ‘phase transition’ just before a system system moves from a state of order to disorder and ‘crashes.’

Phase transitions are common in many systems and preceding ‘crashes’ are therefore highly significant Previously, methods of predicting such phase transitions have failed, peaking at the point of transition and thereby making prediction impossible.

Dr Lionel Barnett, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science comments on the recent discovery:

The key insight in the paper is that the dynamics of complex systems – like the brain and the economy – depend on how their elements causally influence each other; in other words, how information flows between them. And that this information flow needs to be measured for the system as a whole, and not just locally between its various parts.”

To measure this information flow requires a way to mathematically represent the extent to which parts of a complex system are simultaneously separated and pulled together. A way of characterizing the phenomenon of phase transitions has puzzled the scientific community for decades.

In 1925 Ernst Ising solved the problem to represent a model of magnetism for his doctoral thesis. In the more recent discovery, the research team of Sussex and Charles Sturt University demonstrated for the first time that their measure did what many have tried to do since Ising’s model – reliably predicts phase transitions in standard systems. 

Professor Anil Seth, Co-Director of the Sackler Centre, comments on the scope of the discovery:

The implications of the work are far-reaching. If the results generalise to other real-world systems, we might have ways of predicting calamitous events before they happen, which would open the possibility for intervention to prevent the transition from occurring.”

He adds: “For example, the ability to predict the imminent onset of an epileptic seizure could allow a rapid medical intervention (perhaps via brain stimulation) which would change the course of the dynamics and prevent the seizure.  And if similar principles apply to financial markets, climate systems, and even immune systems, similar interventions might be possible. Further research is needed to explore these exciting possibilities.”


Sussex University Press Release: Scientists identify a mathematical ‘crystal ball’ that may predict calamities

Physical Review Lettters: Information Flow in a Kinetic Ising Model Peaks in the Disordered Phase

Image credit: with thanks to Thomas Boulvin of RGB Free Stock

New technologies illuminate Babylonian tale


New technologies at Warwick University have helped British Museum’s Babylonian language expert, Dr Finkle, to decipher a 4,000 year old tablet believed to narrate the story of Noah’s Ark.

Inscribed in Babylonian ‘cuneiform’ – the world’s oldest known standardised writing system – the tablet is believed to depict the story of a Noah-like character and a flood, complete with instructions on how to build an Ark.

Cuneiform is a writing system which involved marking wet clay tablets with a stylus (a wedge-like tool). The tablet and stylus exist in essence today.

The tablet, discovered 20 years ago on a mantel piece in a UK home was damaged in parts due to millennial ‘wear and tear ‘ and rendered indecipherable. The 3D visualisation technologies, typically used in engineering, have enabled the translation of the whole tablet and uncovered new insights into the tablet’s story. 


3D visualisation technology marries techniques such as computer aided design (CAD), infrared technology, animation software and photo capture. Often used in vehicle production, the same methods involved in projecting a potential end product was adopted for projecting the missing parts of the ancient tablet.

Projected onto a 3D wall, the tablet was made viewable at all angles via 3D visualisation technology. This allowed Dr Finkle to decipher the complete text of the tablet.


The new vision of the tablet and revised translation suggests that the ark that featured in the story was round in shape, rather than the previously assumed oval boat-shape. This suggests that the ark was possibly built to float rather than sail.

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One hour of exercise needed a day to counteract sitting


flickr photo by AstridWestvang shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

A recent study by researchers at Cambridge University has found that an hour of exercise is necessary to counteract the health effects of sitting all day.

Low activity levels have been shown to be detrimental to health since a 1953 study in to bus drivers showing that bus drivers were at greater risk of heart disease than conductors.

According to the study, 5 million people per year die globally as a result of lack of activity.

Studies in high income countries has found that adults spend the most part of their day sitting down. Office jobs, commuting by car and sitting to watch TV in the evening.  Continue reading

Gentrification predicted by social media data


flickr photo by x6e38 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Gentrification – the process by which a deprived area becomes affluent – can be predicted by data from location-specific social media networks.

The Cambridge University study took data from location-specific social media networks, such as Facebook places and Foursquare, to show that the ‘poor to posh’ process can be identified when high levels of deprivation and social diversity are seen to develop in an area.

Data crunch

Predicting gentrification is more than a spike of social media users tweeting about Radio 4 programmes. It is data analysis of social media check-ins which reveal behaviours derived from the particular places that people go.

37,000 users and 42,000 venues in London were used to build a network of Foursquare places and Twitter visitors, totalling half a million check-ins over a ten-month period.

Researchers quantified the social diversity of various areas by distinguishing between places that:

  • brought together strangers versus those brought together friends
  • attracted diverse individuals as opposed to those attracting ‘regulars’

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Blood pressure app downloaded 100,000 times proves inaccurate, study shows

Blood pressure

flickr photo by Waifer X shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

A blood pressure app that has been downloaded over 100,000 has been shown to be unreliable, according to a study by John Hopkins University, with just a 20% accuracy rate.

The ‘Instant Blood Pressure’ app claimed to provide an accurate and instant measure of blood pressure when the user placed a SMART phone to their chest.

Results of a study of 85 volunteers using the app under the guidance of health professionals showed that the app missed the warning signs in eight out of ten patients who had high blood pressure.  Continue reading

Male stare and citrus smell increase hand washing by 33%

An experiment to increase staff hand washing in hospitals found that a picture of male eyes placed at eye level increased hand washing by 33%. When this was combined with a citrus scent, the increase rose to as much as 50% more staff washing their hands with anti-bacterial gel before entering a patient’s room.

Psychological priming, or ‘nudges’ were used in the pilot study by researchers to determine the potential impact on hand washing – a significant factor in preventing the spread of infection. Nudges are a concept taken from behavioural science; words, images or signs that prompt behaviour in the observer.  Continue reading

Landlords profits from unsafe housing in the ‘billions’


flickr photo by umjanedoan shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Landlords are making ‘billions of pounds’ from private sector tenants living in homes that fail to meet basic legal housing standards, according to a new report by Citizens Advice and the New Policy Institute (NPI).

Damp and mould, excess cold, rat infestations and pollutants such as Asbestos – the most dangerous ‘category 1 hazards’ – were found in as many as 700,000 privately rented homes in England.

It’s not just low income households vulnerable to renting unsafe housing. 30% of households surveyed reported an annual income of £30,000 and 18% more than £40,000, according to the ‘Paying a high price for a faulty product’ report.

Private renters on the rise

The number of those renting privately is set to increase. Figures by the National Office of Statistics show households in the private sector have risen by 12% in the last decade. Price Waterhouse Cooper (PwC) reports that private rented households will rise to a quarter by 2025 as more people are priced out of home ownership by rising house prices of 5% a year.

Renting in the private sector is the most expensive form of housing yet the poorest in quality. Despite paying significantly more in monthly payments than social housing tenants and home owners, private tenants live in households with a larger number of category 1 hazards. Private rented homes have 5% more category 1 hazards than owner-occupied homes, and three times the number than social rented homes. Average monthly costs for private renters is £765 compared to just £409 for social renters and £664 for home owners paying a mortgage.

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Call for rent ‘refunds’

Campaigners are calling for the Government to provide tenants with the same level of protection seen in consumer law. The recently updated Consumer Rights Act (2015) replaces the Sales of Good Act (1979) and aims to make buying and selling – and redressing complaints – easier. The laws that protect consumers do not translate in housing law, and campaigners want to see this changed.

Citizens Advice is asking for a new housing bill that gives rights such as the ‘right to refund’ in rent when housing problems are ignored. Despite the right to refund proposal being accepted by the government in the current Housing and Planning Bill, rent refunds currently require pursuing through the courts – with tenants footing the bill.

Campaigners say more needs to be done to make rent refunds easier, especially for those not in receipt of housing benefit. Private tenants also need greater protection from ‘retaliation eviction’

License landlords and ‘rogue’ database

Local landlord licenses and a database of ‘worst offenders’ is being considered, alongside the right to refund in the current Housing and Planning Bill. There will be tougher rules to protect tenants from rogue landlords who fail to maintain safe households and new legislation to prevent letting agents from charging extortionate and unnecessary fees in England.

However, there is fear that landlords will respond to increased legislation by selling housing stock and further exasperating the demand for housing in the private housing.

Citizen Advice Press Release
Citizens Advice Report: Paying a high price for a faulty product 
Link to Housing bill 
Link to Price Waterhouse Cooper report summary