Tuesday, 11 December 2012

New Science Faculty Videos

Check out these 3 wonderful new films on the Faculty of Science website, a really fascinating look behind the scenes at what it means to do science. As the web page says:
Researchers working on everything from theoretical chemistry, to geology, to psychology, discuss what it means to be a scientist in the 21st century, and what it takes to survive the emotional rollercoaster that sees them tackle frustration and failure before critical acclaim.
Here's a taster, entitled "Quantum collision: A Meeting of Science, Art, Dance and Music" - a beautiful and thought-provoking film:

There are also lots of profiles of the scientists who were interviewed in the films on the website. Says Aliya Mughal, part of the team who made the films:

In a nutshell, the films explore some of the perennial issues in science – the role and responsibility of science and scientists in how their discoveries are used; how scientists feel about the role they play (or not) in influencing policy when it comes to issues such as climate change, global poverty, etc; how much of science is about progress and impact and how much is about pure curiosity. That’s the first film. The second explores the idea of failure and how scientists deal with frustration and mistakes, what gives them the resolve and determination to continue, basically what it takes to succeed in science when you are continually reminded of how much you don’t know versus how much you do.

The film above focuses on danceroom spectroscopy (dS) –  spearheaded by Dave Glowacki, a science-meets-art interactive installation that brings the atomic world to life and seeks to encourage non-scientists to engage with the world around them at a molecular level. Dave’s project debuted at the Barbican in November so we followed his group from Bristol to London to show just how and why it works, with some very interesting perspectives from members of the public who were quite philosophical about how dS made them realise their place in the world!
The films take quite a candid look at the reality of science, hopefully offering a more personable insight into the ideas, thoughts and people that shape scientific discovery. Our aim was to pitch them in such a way to make science accessible, inspiring and interesting, and to move away from a pure academic exploration to a more imaginative one – in particular, we want to encourage more students to think about science as a creative, exciting (ad)venture that is worth pursuing on a multitude of levels. We worked with some of the newest recruits to the University, selected for their passion, enthusiasm and understanding of the importance of communicating about science.

As Sandra Arndt says in her Q&A, “Science is not really a job, it’s a passion. You get to follow your ideas and do what you really want to do," and this is something that really comes across in these wonderful films!Find it all on the Faculty of Science website.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Higgs-boson-inspired story on Radio 3's The Verb

So on Monday I got a call, from Radio 3's The Verb. Would I be able to write a Higgs-boson and physics-inspired very short story by Wednesday morning to read and chat about on this week's show? Would I? Oh yes! I did, (and the very tight deadline definitely brought out something new, something I'd never done before) and then yesterday morning at the BBC here in Bristol I was recorded reading it and chatting to the fantastic host of the show, Ian McMillan, about physics & fiction, flash fiction and the wonderful words of science. It will be broadcast tomorrow night, Friday 13th, at 10pm UK time, and should be available as a podcast for 7 days after that. Find out more here>>

If you are a physicist, forgive me for what I have done to your words...:)

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Biology and the Humanities – Workshop at the University of Reading

Calling all biologists... from the British Society for Science and Literature:

 ‘Cultivating Common Ground: Biology & the Humanities’

 What do biologists know and think of the humanities? And what do they make of those humanities scholars – literary critics and historians – who have made biology their area of study? University of Reading staff in the biological sciences and the humanities are currently seeking practising biologists to participate in an AHRC-funded workshop which will address these and other questions. The workshop will consist of short presentations by humanities scholars whose research focuses on biology, followed by discussion and analysis of these and other topics. The workshop will be lead by Nick Battey, a plant biologist with a long-standing interest in the value of humanities research to biology, and there will be presentations by John Holmes (Darwinian evolution in poetry), Karin Lesnik-Oberstein (pre-conceptions in biomedical research), David Stack (understanding Victorian science) and Fran├žoise Le Saux (medieval ideas about magic and the natural world). The workshop will take place on Wednesday 18 July 2012 at the University of Reading’s Whiteknights campus between 0930 and 1700. Refreshments, including lunch, will be provided, as will reasonable travel expenses.

Please see http://www.reading.ac.uk/cultivating-common-ground/ for further information. To register for a place, please contact Rachel Crossland: r.c.crossland@reading.ac.uk.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Evo Devo Artist

There's a fascinating interview over on the blog of US literary 'zine Tin House with Anna Lindeman, who has a BS in Biology from Yale and an MFA in Integrated Electronic Arts from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute:

AL: My work integrates animation, music, and performance to tell stories about evolutionary and developmental (Evo Devo) biology. I consider myself an Evo Devo artist.
My performance Theory of Flight begins as a biology lecture with scientist Alida Kear describing the developmental mechanisms of wing growth. The lecture goes quickly awry, though, when Alida reveals a feather she has grown on her own arm through the successful co-option of avian genes. It becomes clear that Alida’s interest in biological flight is rooted not only in scientific investigation, but also in a deeply personal quest for flight. The episodes of biology lecture, featuring increasingly extreme experiments, are punctuated by dream-like interludes that combine music performed by a singing bird spirit and a look into a cellular world animated with simple materials—yarn becomes DNA, lace and buttons become proteins.
Evo Devo stories appear throughout Theory of Flight. The lecture delves into the genetic mechanisms of feather development, evolutionary theories of flight, and ultimately, investigations into regenerative limbs and transgenics.
I like the way Anna talks about her work. She says:
I never felt inhibited by the facts that science provides us with; to me they are the richest treasure trove of source material. Beauty, absurdity, poignancy, whimsy—all of the sensations I hope to craft as an artist have already had some masterful manifestation in nature, and science is a profound way of understanding these manifestations. 
 Very inspiring! Read the whole interview here.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Milly: Polarization Paradise 2

Enjoying myself on my latest research cruise off
the coast of the UK. Photo: Zan Boyle.
Lizard Island, a tiny island on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, famous for its abundance of bison lizards and known amongst scientists as a prime spot for marine science. The tranquil, aquamarine waters surrounding the island come as a welcome change from the turbid, brown, worm infested Atlantic I spent so long staring at during my last trip. My mud sieving days are over, instead, I'll be collecting animals from the reef and testing their polarization vision. "Do you make them wear sunglasses?". Sometimes I regret talking about science with my friends. No sunglasses, but plenty of polaroid and LCD screens.

Cats love to be breaded. Photo: web.

Sick of your office judging you for spending your lunch break perusing breadedcats.com? All you need to do is tweak your computer screen and you can hide your cat compulsions from the world. If you were to remove the front layer of an LCD screen, it would appear blank, but those loaf wearing cats are still there, all you need is a piece of polaroid to bring them back. LCD screens work by emitting polarized light at different angles. By putting a piece of polaroid in front of this system, changes in polarization angle alters the amount of light the viewer can see. The polaroid works by blocking light polarized at one angle (appearing black) and transmitting it at a perpendicular angle (appearing white). To the people working in my lab, I looked like very stange, sitting at a blank screen with sunglasses on...but little did they know, breadedcats.com.

So, if we want to test the ability of animals to see polarized light, what better than to use an LCD screen that allows us to create any image we want, and show it as a polarization signal. We will be testing cuttlefish, animals with a fascinating visual system, lacking colour vision entirely but possessing an extremely sensitive polarization visual system. Using LCD screens, a member of our lab, Dr Shelby Temple has discovered that cuttlefish can distinguish surprisingly low differences in polarization angle, far better than what we thought possible but how they are able to do this remains a mystery.

A cuttlefish showing off it's polarization pattern visible
here in a false colour image. Photo: Shashar et al., 1996.
You might be wondering what benefit detecting different angles of polarized light gives an animal living on the reef. Cuttlefish, like mantis shrimps, are able to signal by polarizing the light reflecting off their bodies. Scientists think that this could allow them to signal covertly to other members of their species without alerting prey or predators nearby, pretty nifty. To do this, mantis shrimps have an exoskeleton with special optical properties due to its structure. Cuttlefish however have a mechanism that allows them to control the polarization patterns they produce. Specialised pigment cells, iridophores, under control of the neural system are able to undergo ultrastructural changes in seconds, producing a changing polarization signal all over the body. All of this on top of changing colour and iridescence. The cuttlefish is an underwater disco.

So in in a nutshell, one of our projects will involve using LCD screens to display polarized stimuli to marine animals in tanks, and judging their responses to get a further insight into the mysterious world of polarization vision! More later...

Monday, 30 April 2012

Milly: Polarization Paradise

I've not been the most active of writers on this blog of late but, fear not, I'm going to write another series of posts as I blog/blather from the field.

Lizard Island, Australia. Photo: Michael Bok.
In just under a month from now, my lab and I (Ecology of Vision Group) will be flying to Australia, Lizard Island, on a mission to unveil more secrets about the vision of marine animals. You may be wondering why it is necessary to travel across the world to do this. Well, aside from the fact that scientific success increases significantly when in an idyllic location (obviously), we need access to Australia's diverse range of reef dwelling beasties, including the charming octopus and the not so charming mantis shrimp, more likely to rip your hand off than to shake it.

A mantis shrimp (stomatopod).
Photo: web.
Our team have collected all of the gear we will be needing for experiments: LCD screens, perspex tubes, lightbulbs, cameras, 3D glasses and milk. Now, it may sound like we are planning to watch a film, but actually we are going to do some serious and exciting science.

The word that binds our research together is polarization. If my colleagues and I were the mince, polarization would be the egg that binds us together forming the burger (?!) that is our group. Slightly off the beaten (egg) track.

Serious science time:

What is polarization?
Unpolarized light coming from a light source is oscillating at all
possible angles in that plane, however, when it is passed through a
filter (polaroid) it becomes polarized, oscillating only at one angle.
When applied to light, polarization means the direction that the light is oscillating in. If you imagine that you are holding a rope and you shake it up and down, waves form, travelling down its length. You can shake the rope from side to side, or also swirl it round forming a rotating pattern that also travels along the rope. This same idea can be applied to light as it too oscillates as it is travelling along as a wave. Just like the wavelength of light can inform an animal of the colour of something it can see, polarization can also provide additional information as light bounces off different structures or is scattered by particles.

How can an animal detect polarized light? 
We, as humans, know that polarized light exists around us, but unfortunately, without polaroid filters, we cannot see it. Unless of course you are one of the lucky few who have deliberately tried to view strong sources of polarized light such as LCD monitor outputs and are now cursed, forever having a strange yellow bow tie shape appear randomly on the desktop. It's called Haidinger's brush if you fancy having a go yourself. To detect polarized light oscillating at one angle, your photoreceptors must be aligned at that same angle, to absorb the maximum amount of light. If your photoreceptor is, say, 90degrees out compared to the polarized light, then it's not going to absorb very efficiently. This sort of arrangement of photoreceptors where one lies at one angle and a second, connected photoreceptor is lined up perpendicular to it, is very common in invertebrates and is the basis for their polarization vision. Simply put, it allows them to compare the outputs of these two receptors and figure out what angle the light is oscillating at.

Why is polarization vision useful?
Unpolarized light bouncing off the surface of the
water becoming polarized horizontally.
Photo: Wehner (2001).
At first it might sound like polarization vision could be disadvantageous, since you have the potential to lose information every time polarized light hits your receptors at the wrong angle. What it does do, however, is convey valuable information. When light bounces off a shiny surface, such as water, much of the reflected light becomes horizontally polarized (oscillating at the same angle as the water's surface). If the light hits the water at Brewster's Angle, then all of the light is horizontally polarized. Now, imagine that you are a water-seeking insect where the survival of your species depends on you reaching water to mate and lay your eggs. Some strong selection pressures there. If you have receptors aligned horizontally and pointing down towards the ground, you have a perfect water detecting device. This is a common feature of water-seeking insects. Unfortunately, lots of man-made surfaces are shiny so if you have ever wondered why you find dead beetles and mayflies on the highly reflective bonnet of your car...now you know. Polarization vision isn't just useful for this one task, light is also polarized as it travels through scattering media such as water, or the atmosphere. As the light scatters it becomes polarized at an angle depending on the incident light. If this is happening millions of times in the sky as the light travels towards the Earth, a predictable pattern is formed which acts as a map to navigation and orientation in bees, beetles and other insects where the landscape is complex, moving and changing or devoid of any useful visual landmarks on the ground. The same applies underwater.

Invertebrates such as insects, crabs and cuttlefish have polarization
sensitive cells in the eye consisting of perpendicularly oriented
light absorbing microvilli. You can see the two orientations in the
TEM image of dragonfly photoreceptors above.
Photo: Meyer and Labhart (1993)

I still haven't got to the bit where I explain what we are doing in Australia. I think that is quite enough for one post, time for a cup of tea.