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It is my mission to explain a little about what's underneath the bonnet

BEFORE you even reach Professor Muffy Calder's office you are struck by two things that highlight the significance of her recent appointment as the new Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) in Scotland.

PICTURE: MARTIN SHIELDS
PICTURE: MARTIN SHIELDS

The first is a notice at the main entrance to the Sir Alwyn Williams building noting that Glasgow University was the first in Scotland to open a computing science department and made history in 1957 as the first in Scotland to have an electronic computer.

The second is a plaque in reception commemorating the official opening of the building in 2005 by her predecessor as CSA, Prof Anne Glover, a biologist and the first person to hold the post.

As CSA, it is Calder's job to provide independent scientific advice to ministers, champion science as a key driver of the economy, and ensure the Scottish Government uses science effectively in all policy-making.

However, while Calder, who took up the role in March, relishes the opportunity to raise the profile of her subject, arguably the most neglected and misunderstood of the sciences, she is reluctant to make too much of her status as the second female CSA in a row. "I think it's something to be celebrated but, kind of, that's it. I'm a scientist first, and like every profession having people from diverse backgrounds in that profession is good, full stop."

Nor is she is favour of positive discrimination as a means of rebalancing a profession struggling to attract women into the STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering and maths, and generally short of female representatives at the highest levels. Her own subject, computer science, has a ratio of around one female student to every nine males.

She said: "In general, I wouldn't favour positive discrimination in any area. Who wants to be selected for something because of their skin colour or gender or whatever else? I don't think anyone wants that and I'm not sure I want to live in a society where we do that, but I want to live in a society where we make it really clear to young people what the opportunities are and what a subject really is.

"That's been one of the issues with computer science – people don't know what it is. If they think it's playing games, maybe that's why girls don't want to go into it – I wouldn't. But the great thing is it's not."

Born and brought up in an "obscure town" in northern Quebec, Canada, she was the second of two daughters for her parents. Both of mixed northern European descent, they had emigrated to the province from Chile, where her father had worked in mining, shortly before she was born.

"My father was an engineer and I was raised very much as the boy. There was a lot of discussion about how things worked, so my dad was very influential in that. My mother was a typing teacher, so I learned to type very young. I was very tomboyish. I always liked science and I always wanted to be a scientist."

At secondary school she was moved forward two years to sit her Higher equivalents at just 14 after complaining to her maths teacher she was bored in lessons. She proved a voracious learner, gaining all the qualifications needed for university early and going on to study the rest of the sciences, history and music for fun. She learned to play the French horn at school and 10 years ago took up the violin, forming a quartet with other adult learners. "We're incredibly bad," she concedes, though it's difficult not to wonder whether someone with such a record of high achievement might be setting the bar higher than most.

In 1976 she arrived in Scotland to begin a degree in maths and physics at Stirling University, lured more than anything by "the hills". "I thought at the time that every university was the same and I didn't want to live in a city."

It was there that she became mesmerised by computing.

"At first, I didn't like it at all, but it just got better and better as I went through university. I found maths got drier and drier and computing just got more and more interesting. Also, at that time, the lectures were more informal. The other sciences still felt a bit stuffy, whereas in computing they called you by your first name and everything seemed so accessible. We were so close to the cutting edge."

After gaining a BSc in Computing Science from Stirling, Calder went on to complete a PhD in Computational Science at St Andrews and in 1987 embarked on what is now a 25-year career as an academic at Glasgow University, culminating in her appointment as Professor of Computing Science and Dean for Research in the College of Science and Engineering.

This has run alongside a private sector technical career where her expertise in mathematical modelling and reasoning about the behaviour of complex software and biochemical systems has been sought by firms ranging from the Swan Hunter shipyard on Tyneside to companies in Palo Alto, California, a hub of IT giants including Apple, Google and Facebook.

The white board on the wall of her bright office overlooking the west end of Glasgow pays testament to the obscurity of the subject to an outsider. Baffling algebra puzzles cover the board which the 54-year-old explains is part of her attempts to crack how programmers can directly link physical and virtual worlds, for example in gaming.

It is a reminder that while computers may be everywhere in our daily lives, they are dependent on humans developing the right algorithms to program and control them - and knowing how to unravel them if they go wrong. "We're almost a victim of our own success. Because computers are ubiquitous, they're hiding the actual complexity and what is software and what is programming. The interfaces have made computers so easy to use that we actually don't see what's underneath the bonnet.

"And so my mission is to explain a little about what it is that's underneath the bonnet, or, if I can't even explain that to the layperson, at least explain how interesting it is and the fact it's not a done deal –it's not finished. We need more people to come into the subject to design the next devices."

Key, she adds, is bracketing computing where it belongs, alongside biology, chemistry, physics and maths – although she jokingly acknowledges the tendency among peers, and even loved ones, to underestimate the subject.

"He would consider himself a real engineer," she says of her husband of 14 years, a chemical engineer who has spent the past two and a half years based in China helping to build a water treatment facility. The pair met through a shared interest in hill running – until the recent surge in her workload, she was a competitor in amateur leagues –and she is clearly delighted by the prospect of his return to the UK in five weeks' time.

She also beams about her adopted city of Glasgow, home for 25 years.

"I love Glasgow. There's something about it – the buzz. Seriously, I think Glasgow is the warmest, nicest place to live in the world. I would not want to live anywhere else. It's close to the hills, it's easy to get around, and the people are great. It's not that I'm not inquisitive about the rest of the world, it's just that I've seen a lot of it and I like home."

Calder also believes there is much to be proud of in the condition of science in Scotland today. For a small country we already punch above our weight, receiving around 10.8% of UK research expenditure despite having only 8.5% of the UK population and the way in which funding can be pooled across universities in Scotland in order to bring together experts in the same field from different centres has "changed the context" of research north of the Border.

Together with life sciences and biotechnology – which she describes as the "huge strengths" of contemporary Scottish science – she believes renewables are today's brave new world.

"I really enjoyed getting into computing when it was very young, you really felt the excitement of it and the rarity, and I think renewable energy is the same thing now. Although I still want people to come into computing science and computing science is part of the whole, renewable energy is just the new frontier. There's so much to be done there and for good reasons – why wouldn't that inspire you to want to join it?"

Ironically for someone enthralled by computing, she is mostly ambivalent about the gadgets it has given birth to – with the exception, perhaps, of her iPhone. But, she adds, society's ballooning dependence on these devices is one of the most striking achievements of computer science.

"There's a really good statistic. So, the first computer was about 60 years ago. A machine instruction now take 25 billion times less energy to execute now. The sheer profundity of that, it's just huge. That's like taking the entire car and lorry fleet of the UK and running it on like two litres of petrol. That's the difference. But do we use less power in our machines now?

"No, quite the contrary, because we have so many more machines and we are executing so many more instructions per second. So we've made it so much more efficient and that's enabled us to have all these gadgets."

muffy calder Chief scientific adviser in Scotland

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