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Previous Blackett Memorial Lectures

Blackett Memorial Lecture 2017

Towards a Science of the Web

Presenter: Prof Sir Nigel Shadbolt, Principal of Jesus College, Oxford and Professorial Research. Fellow in Computer Science at the University of Oxford

During the past 20 years, humans have built the largest information fabric in history. The World Wide Web has been

transformational. People shop, date, trade and communicate with one another using it. Although most people are not formally trained in its use, yet it has assumed a central role in their lives. Over the past few years, there has been a growing recognition that the ecosystem that is the Web needs to be treated as an important and coherent area of study—this is Web science.

Understanding the Web will have wide-reaching implications and is on a par with other great scientific challenges such as understanding the climate, our biological nature or the larger Universe. Web science is a new and emergent discipline that is developing its own methods and techniques. But just as with climate science or life science, it must be interdisciplinary drawing insights from mathematics, physics, computer science, psychology, ecology, sociology but also law, political science, economics and more.  If we are to anticipate how the Web will develop we will require insight into our own nature. Web science is not only a new frontier it is an endeavour that will bring together a new generation of enquiring minds. This talk will review the emergence of Web Science, some of the questions it is seeking to understand, review a number of the methods and techniques it deploys, discuss the insights already obtained and the challenges outstanding.

Bio:  Sir Nigel Shadbolt is Professor of Computer Science at the University of Oxford and Principal of Jesus College. He is also the Chairman and Co-Founder of the Open Data Institute (ODI). In 2009, Sir Nigel was appointed Information Adviser to the UK Government, helping transform public access to Government information, including the widely acclaimed site

With over 500 publications he researches and publishes on computer science, artificial intelligence, open data and web science. During his career, he has also worked in philosophy, psychology and linguistics. Since 2000 he has secured 17 projects as Principal Investigator with a value of over £20 million pounds. He is currently Principal Investigator on a £6.14M EPSRC funded Programme Grant researching the theory of social machines - Web scale problem solving systems comprising large numbers of humans and computers.

In 2006 he was one of three founding Directors of Garlik Ltd, which in 2008 was awarded Technology Pioneer status by the Davos World Economic Forum and won the prestigious UK national BT Flagship Award. Garlik was acquired by Experian Ltd in 2011. In 2013 he was awarded a Knighthood for services to science and engineering. He is a member of the GDS (Government Digital Services) Advisory Board. At the request of the Government he recently chaired a Review of Computer Sciences Accreditation and Employability. In 2015 the Chancellor asked him to Co-Chair the UK French Data Taskforce.

2016 Lecture - Thursday 17 November 2016

Machines that learn: big data or explanatory models?

Presenter: Prof. Andrew Blake, Director of the Alan Turing Institute, London, England

A leading question about machines that learn concerns two distinct styles of learning. Will they turn out to depend more on probabilistic models that explain the data, or on networks that react to data and are trained on data at ever greater scale? In machine vision systems, for instance, this boils down to the comparative roles of two paradigms: analysis-by-synthesis versus empirical recognisers. Each approach has its strengths, and empirical recognisers especially have made great strides in performance in the last few years, through deep learning. It is a particular challenge to understand how the two approaches could be integrated, and already progress is being made on that.

Bio: Andrew Blake was appointed as the first director for the Alan Turing Institute in 2015. Previously, he was a Microsoft Distinguished Scientist and the Laboratory Director of Microsoft Research Cambridge, England. He joined Microsoft in 1999 as a Senior Researcher to found the Computer Vision group. In 2008 he became a Deputy Managing Director at the lab, before assuming his current position in 2010. Prior to joining Microsoft Andrew trained in mathematics and electrical engineering in Cambridge England, and studied for a doctorate in Artificial Intelligence in Edinburgh. He was an academic for 18 years, latterly on the faculty at Oxford University, where he was a pioneer in the development of the theory and algorithms that can make it possible for computers to behave as seeing machines.

He has published several books including “Visual Reconstruction” with A.Zisserman (MIT press), “Active Vision” with A. Yuille (MIT Press) and “Active Contours” with M. Isard (Springer-Verlag). He has twice won the prize of the European Conference on Computer Vision, with R. Cipolla in 1992 and with M. Isard in 1996, and was awarded the IEEE David Marr Prize (jointly with K. Toyama) in 2001.

In 2006 the Royal Academy of Engineering awarded him its Silver Medal and in 2007 the Institution of Engineering and Technology presented him with the Mountbatten Medal (previously awarded to computer pioneers Maurice Wilkes and Tim Berners-Lee, amongst others.) He was elected Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering in 1998, Fellow of the IEEE in 2008, and Fellow of the Royal Society in 2005. In 2010, Andrew was elected to the council of the Royal Society. In 2011, he and colleagues at Microsoft Research received the Royal Academy of Engineering MacRobert Award for their machine learning contribution to Microsoft Kinect human motion-capture. In 2012 Andrew was elected to the board of the EPSRC and also received an honorary degree of Doctor of Science from the University of Edinburgh. In 2013 Andrew was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Engineering from the University of Sheffield. In 2014, Andrew gave the prestigious Gibbs lecture at the Joint Mathematics Meetings (transcript available here).

2015 Lecture - Thursday 26 November 2015

In Defence of Big Data

Presenter: Kenneth Cukier, Data Editor for the Economist

"Big data" is everywhere -- but seems like a faddish term evoking complete nonsense. More data? It just confounds faster! The idea that throwing more data at a problem can magically produce an answer is abhorrent to the traditional operational research and statistics profession. Yet it is true that there are more data than ever and new techniques to make sense of it. Computers and algorithms can do things that were previously impossible to imagine. So what actually is big data and what does it mean for the OR community? Kenneth Cukier, the data editor of The Economist and coauthor of the bestselling book "Big Data," will defend big data against the naysayers. In a talk aimed at a general audience but of particular interest to specialists, he argues that big data is the most important development of our lifetime, on par with the printing press. Whether one agrees, big data must be understood by OR professionals to remain relevant.

Kenneth Cukier is the Data Editor of The Economist in London and the co-author of the award-winning book “Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think” with Viktor Mayer-Schönberger in 2013, a New York Times Bestseller translated into 20 languages. He is a regular commentator on BBC, CNN, and NPR, and a member of the World Economic Forum's council on data-driven development. In 2002-04, Mr. Cukier was a research fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He is a board director of International Bridges to Justice and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

2014 Lecture - Wednesday 26 November 2014

Opportunities and challenges for the NHS

Presenter: Professor Sir Bruce Keogh, National Medical Director, NHS England

The NHS faces unprecedented challenges as a consequence of increasing demand, escalating treatment costs and rising expectations in a tight financial climate. Addressing these issues demands an understanding of efficiency and value in our healthcare system.

Improving clinical outcomes and patient experience of care is at the heart of what leaders and managers of the NHS are asked to do. Achieving this goal requires clinical leadership and best available clinical evidence. It also requires richer data and the expertise of the social and management sciences, including Operational Research. 

The lecture will describe some examples from Prof Keogh’s own experience in working in the NHS in recent years of bringing together clinicians, data and analysis to help understanding of how to improve outcomes and patient experience. The lecture will focus on examples in urgent and emergency care, where interdisciplinary collaboration between clinicians, operational researchers and economists is helping us to understand how the very complex emergency care system might respond to rising demand for services. The tools being devised to promote and reward implementation of better models of care are already producing demonstrable results for patients with major conditions, such as trauma, stroke and a range of other services.

Sir Bruce Edward Keogh, KBE, FRCS, FRCP, (born 24 November 1954) has been Medical Director of the National Health Service in England since 2007 and National Medical Director of the NHS Commissioning Board (NHS England) since 2013. 

2013 Lecture - Thursday 28 November 2013

Communicating risk and deeper uncertainty

Presenter: David Spiegelhalter FRS OBE Winton Professor for the Public Understanding of Risk, at the University of Cambridge

We all have to juggle ‘rational’ and ‘emotional’ responses to risk and uncertainty, and good communication should mean that audiences are more immune to misleading anecdotes.  When we are fairly happy about putting numbers on risks, then there are established methods for using words, numbers and graphics, and I shall talk about recent work in various fields, including communicating the benefits and harms of cancer screening, as well as more speculative measures such as the ‘micromort’ and ‘microlife’. 

Things get trickier when we acknowledge we don’t really understand what is going on, and have qualms about a formal analysis.  I will compare about how different groups - in security, toxicology, health care, climate change, finance and so on - have come up with different strategies for communicating these deeper uncertainties. 

David Spiegelhalter is Winton Professor for the Public Understanding of Risk, and Professor of Biostatistics, at the University of Cambridge.  His background is in medical statistics, particularly the use of Bayesian methods in clinical trials, health technology assessment and drug safety.

In his post he leads a small team ( that attempts to improve the way in which the quantitative aspects of risk and uncertainty are discussed in society.  He works closely with the Millennium Mathematics Project in Cambridge in trying to develop an exciting treatment of probability and risk for mathematics education.  He gives many presentations to schools and others, advises organisations and government agencies on risk communication, and is a regular commentator on current risk issues.  He presented the BBC4 documentary ‘Tails you Win: the Science of Chance”, and in 2011 competed in Winter Wipeout on BBC1.

He has over 190 refereed publications and is co-author of 6 textbooks. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Institute for Risk Management, an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 2005 and awarded an OBE in 2006 for services to medical statistics.  He is @d_spiegel on Twitter, and his home page is

2012 Lecture - Thursday 29 November 2012

2050 Pathways

Presenter: Prof. David MacKay FRS, Professor of Natural Philosophy in the Department of Physics at the University of Cambridge and Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC)

  • How easy is it to get off our fossil fuel habit?
  • How does our current energy consumption compare with our sustainable energy options?
  • How can we make energy plans that add up?

This talk will offer a straight-talking assessment of the numbers, and will present the DECC 2050 Pathways Calculator [].

David MacKay is a Professor in the Department of Physics at the University of Cambridge. His best-selling book, Sustainable Energy - without the hot air (, has been described as ‘a tour de force’ (The Economist), ‘a must-read analysis’ (Science Magazine), and ‘this year's must-read book’ (The Guardian).  In 2009, he was appointed the Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change.

2011 Lecture - Thursday 24 November 2011

Dynamic Network Routing - Meeting the Challenge of Complex Traffic and Transportation Tasks

Presenter: Prof Rolf Möhring, (the 2010 EURO Gold Medal winner) Technische Universität Berlin

Traffic management and routing in logistic systems are optimisation problems by nature. One wants to utilise the available street or logistic network in such a way that the network ‘load’ is minimised or the ‘throughput’ is maximised. The aspects of ‘time’ and ‘congestion’ play a crucial role in these problems and require new techniques that need to integrate dynamic network flows and scheduling.

The lecture will illustrate recent developments in this direction on the several applications:

  1. Traffic guidance in rush hour traffic
  2. Routing automated guided vehicles in container terminals
  3. Ship traffic optimisation on the Kiel Canal

All these applications benefit from new insights into routing in graphs. In (1), it is a routing scheme that achieves traffic patterns that are close to the system optimum but still respect certain fairness conditions, while in (2) it is a very fast real-time algorithm that avoids collisions, deadlocks, and other conflicts already at route computation. Finally, (3) combines techniques from (2) with special purpose scheduling algorithms.

2010 Lecture - Thursday 25 November 2010

Financial, Ecological and Disease-Transmitting Networks and their Dynamics

Presenter: Robert M May, (Lord May of Oxford OM, AC, FRS) Zoology Department, University of Oxford

Abstract: The transmission of infection among humans or other animals, the spread of viruses or worms among computers, transfers of funds within financial markets, and the way ecosystems respond to disturbance are four among many examples of nonlinear dynamical systems whose behaviour depends upon the nature of the network of connections among nodes (that is individuals, computers, banks/traders, species, respectively).  Recent concern about HIV/AIDS, SARS, and foot and mouth disease among livestock have prompted advances in our understanding of the interplay between network patterns and effective control measures.  Separate, but ultimately related, work deals with older questions about ecosystem resilience, and newer questions about the overall stability of financial markets (as distinct from individual funds).  My talk aims to be a brief but opinionated overview of all this.

For more information on the 2010 Lecture and to see the talk, take a look under the 'Watch / Listen / Download' tab.

2009 Lecture - Tuesday 3 November

What next for nanotechnology?

Prof Richard A. L. Jones FRS (Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research and Innovation, University of Sheffield)

Abstract: We can now manipulate matter at the level of individual atoms and molecules, and we are beginning to see some of the results of this nanotechnology in the form of useful products. The most sophisticated nanoscale machines and devices we know about now are the sub-cellular machines which underpin all the functions of living things. This natural nanotechnology is based on quite different design principles to the principles we learn in macroscopic engineering. Professor Jones will discuss the extent to which we may in the future be able to use design principles abstracted from biological examples to create sophisticated nanoscale devices and systems.

2008 Lecture - Thursday 23 October

Title: The Sustainability of Human Populations

Presenter: Dr Martin Desvaux BSc PhD CPhys MInstP (The Optimum Population Trust)

Abstract: Following a short introduction to the Optimum Population Trust, the talk commences with an overview of the development of human world population from prehistory up to the present day. The speaker will explore and seek to answer the following questions: How many people can the earth support today? Where are the limits and on what do they depend? Have we yet to exceed the sustainable population size or is a collapse around the corner? What will be the effect of global warming on our prospects and will cutting carbon emissions solve the problem? If not, does anything? Martin Desvaux shows how the sustainability of populations can be assessed using recently-developed footprinting methods and data from the Global Footprinting Network. He will use a novel graphical way to present complex footprinting data, so all should become clear.

Take a look at the article.

2007 Lecture - Tuesday 20 November

Title: Plagues and People – Planning for Pandemics

Presenter: Sir Roy Anderson FRS, FMedSci (Department of Infectious Disease Epidemiology, Imperial College London)

Abstract: The science of epidemiology has long used statistical approaches to examine the causes of disease in both humans and livestock.  Over the past few decades mathematical models, often complex in structure, have become widely used in the study of infectious disease epidemics and their control.  The talk will discuss current approaches and their applications to a variety of problems including biological weapons, the 2003 SARS epidemic and current work in planning for an influenza pandemic.

2006 Lecture - Monday 13 November

Title: A mathematician’s eye-view of O.R.

Presenter: Sir John Kingman FRS (Director of the Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences)

2006 Lecture - Tuesday 14 March

Title: The nuclear option: human factors in safety

Presenter: Professor Sue Cox (Dean of Lancaster University Management School and Professor of Safety and Risk Management)

Abstract: The lecture explored current developments in human factors and the management of safety in the context of unprecedented change within the nuclear sector.

The slides are available from this lecture.

2005 Lecture - Monday 15 February

Title: Humanitarian Disaster Logistics:  Supply Chain Management in High Gear

Presenter: Professor Luk N Van Wassenhove (Henry Ford Chaired Professor of Manufacturing at INSEAD, France)

Abstract: Professor Luk N. Van Wassenhove is the Henry Ford Chaired Professor of Manufacturing at INSEAD, France. His current research focuses on Industrial Excellence, Sustainable Operations, Risk in Global Supply Chains and Humanitarian Logistics. In his work on disaster logistics he is collaborating with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the World Food Programme and Medecins sans Frontieres, among others. He is also investigating private-public partnerships in this field such as the one between TPG-TNT and the World Food Programme.

The Blackett lecture is designated as one of a series of meetings being held around Europe in the year 2005 to celebrate 30 years of EURO, the European Federation of Operational Research Societies.

2004 Lecture - Monday 17 May

Title: Operating and Researching in the Science-Engineering Continuum

Presenter: Prof John O’Reill (Chief Executive of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)

Abstract: Much emphasis is placed today on the importance of inter-disciplinary research and on multi-disciplinary teams. But it was ever thus: “Real world problems do not respect the boundaries of established academic disciplines - nor indeed the traditional boundaries of science and engineering”.

Drawing on the richness of the remit of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and fruits of the talents of its research community for illustrative examples, this assertion will be explored and tested. Particular attention will be paid to the extent of further scope for cross-fertilisation between OR and engineering and the physical sciences more generally.

2001 Lecture - Thursday 8 November

Title: The role of quantitative analysis in public policy making

Presenter: Andrew Dilnot (Director, Institute of Fiscal Studies)

Take a look at the article

2000 Lecture - 15th November 2000

Title: Air Safety: End of the Golden Age

Presenter: Prof. Arnie Barnett (George Eastman Professor of Management Science at MIT's Sloan School of Management)

Aviation is so safe now in First-World countries that it is almost as perverse to worry about flying as to hesitate to go to the grocery for fear that the ceiling to collapse. It is conceivable, however, that certain threats to air safety will prove more potent in the future than they have been in the recent past. We review empirical evidence about where matters now stand and where they might plausibly go.

We have the presentation by Prof Arnie Barnett available - Air Safety: End of the Golden Age

1999 Lecture - Tuesday 30 November

Title: The future of Official Statistics

Presenter: Dr Tim Holt ONS

1998 Lecture - Thursday 3 December

Title: Blackett in the ‘white heat’ of the scientific revolution: industrial modernisation under the Labour governments, 1964–1970

Presenter: Prof Maurice Kirby FRHistS (University of Lancaster)

1997 Lecture - Tuesday 18 November

Title: OR/MS: Where it's been Where should it be going?

Presenter: William Cooper, (Foster Parker Prof of Fin & Mgmt (emeritus), University of Texas at Austin)

1996 Lecture - Thursday 5 December

Title: Modelling Telecommunications Networks

Presenter: Prof Frank Kelly, (University of Cambridge)

1995 Lecture - Thursday 30 November

Title: OR and Regulation: Theory and Practice

Presenter: Prof S C Littlechild (Dir Gen of Electricity Supply, Office of Electricity Regulation)