Martin Coath

Glad my password still works! Kudos to web admins!

Favourite Thing: Get people excited about complicated things!

Me and my work

I am a computational neuroscientist. This just means that I am interested in how brains work and how they learn, but I study this with computer models and simulations rather than with real brains!

My particular interest is in how we make sense of the world.  It’s amazing how we use the stuff we get from our eyes and ears,  and nobody is really sure about how we do it.

I am currently building computer models of how we learn to hear.  The aim of this project is to help to design machines that work like bats, or dolphins, making sense of the world through sounds.

If this sounds a bit like I work designing robots then you are pretty close!  But, we are *really* trying to do it in a way that closely resembles the way a living organism would do it.  So we also hope to learn lots about the way brains work at the same time.

My Typical Day

A lot of reading, a lot of thinking, a lot of brain-storming with colleagues! OK, my job is writing computer simulations, but you have to have your ideas straight before you start :)


This is me at work.  You can see part of the design of one of my `brains’ on the left hand screen.


Another part of a typical day!  You can see me on the right (shiny watch) in a larger than usual meeting of colleagues (this one was in Amsterdam) having one of our marathon debates about how we are going to crack the difficult problems we have set ourselves.

Around this table there are mathematicians, composers, and psychologists, as well as neuroscientists and programmers.  Starting from me and going round the table clockwise there are people from Spain, Austria, Brazil, Poland (twice), South Africa, Hungary (twice), China, Spain, France, The Netherlands, France, and Australia.  We work closely with experts in all fields from all over the world.

What I'd do with the money

I have two great new ideas for science roadshow events: a role play game that demonstrates how brains work using members of the audience as neurons, and a working model of a nuclear chain reaction! The prize would be enough for me to buy the stuff to set these up and take them to schools and science festivals.

Outside of the lab I regularly give public presentations and do a sort of science `busking’.  This is part of a bigger effort that is sometimes called public engagement (this event is part of the same big picture) which I think is very important.  I have been working on few ideas.


The picture shows me at the Cheltenham Science Festival showing how protein molecules can stick together to make cheese to an audience of under tens!

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Curious, serious, careful.

Who is your favourite singer or band?

I don’t have one at the moment. I listen to a lot of great tracks by different people. My friends are always recommending great stuff for me to listen to. OK – I will say `Mumford and Sons’ because they are relatively new and have impressed me recently.

What is the most fun thing you've done?

Kayaking the Nantahala River in North Carolina – great rapids!

If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!

I would want to be smarter, more energetic, and less serious.

What did you want to be after you left school?

I honestly had no idea. Take a tip from me – *be more focussed!*

Were you ever in trouble in at school?

Only minor stuff. My school had a purpose built music department with sound-proof practice rooms. Occasionally (!) I took my guitar to the music block and locked myself in rather than go to lessons. I was caught in the end of course.

What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?

I think my day job is great, I hope you will ask me lots of questions and learn more about it, but getting out of the lab and getting everybody interested and curious about the world, about the universe, is a rush! Last year I was a ‘warm up act’ for the Halle Orchestra on the last night of the Cheltenham Music Festival – not the usual science crowd! I shared the stage with a friend of mine who is a violin maker and we talked about science and musical instruments – the physics of sound, the biology of wood, the chemistry of glue, and all sorts of stuff. We had the whole audience gluing bits of wood together, doing listening experiments, and generally getting involved and asking questions. It was great :-)

Tell us a joke.

A polar bear walks in to a bar and says “A pint of bitter and … … … … … … … … a packet of crisps please”. The guy who is serving asks him “Why the big pause?” “Because I’m a polar bear!”