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 Françoise 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.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Angel:Mexico Day at the University of Bristol 30/04/12

I've just got this email few days ago regarding the Mexico Day at UoB next Monday, which maybe could be interesting for some of you. This special event is not only an opportunity to hear the Mexican Embassador, Eduardo Medina-Mora Icaza, besides the audience will have the chance to look over some posters on currently research projects concerning Mexico:

I'm pleased to announce that next Monday 30th April will be Mexico Day at the University of Bristol. We would like to invite you to a special event to celebrate the University of Bristol's links with Mexico.

Bristol is proud to host the Mexican Ambassador, Eduardo Medina-Mora Icaza, for the day and he'll be giving a question-and-answer session for all interested students and staff.

It will be running from 3 o'clock in the Seminar Room of the Nanoscience Building on Tyndall Avenue. The hour-long session will be a rare opportunity to put your questions to the ambassador.

This event will be free of charge and we hope you will be able to attend.

Following the Q&A the Ambassador will be introducing a special lecture 'Rethinking Nineteenth-century Mexico: Following in the steps of Professor Michael P. Costeloe' by Bristol alumnus Professor Will Fowler of St Andrews. This will culminate with a wine reception. Please see here for details.

For directions to the Nanoscience building please see here.

The Faculty of Science can't be out of this special event, Marisol Correa, a current PhD student in the School of Chemistry under the supervision of Professor Richard Evershed, is conducting a research project about absorbed organic residues analysis from utilitarian ‘cooking’ pottery in Mexico. The analysis of organic residues has been a successful tool in order to answer archaeological  questions relating to ancient diet and agriculture in other parts of the world. Besides, the outcome from this project would be useful to achieve a better knowledge of social patterns such as strategies of land use in the urban hinterland.

Trajineras, colorful gondolas - Xochimilco, Mexico, 2011

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Angel: Like water for Chocolate

Alebrije (ali-bre-haze) - hand carved and hand painted wooden animals created by artisans in small towns outside the city of Oaxaca, Mexico.

The winter has just faded away, I have to mention that I am a little bit sad to say goodbye to delightful coffee-&-chocolate afternoons, and say hello to lemon sorbet times, laid down on the Royal Foyer fields. However, I’m not going to lie, saying such a delicious ritual has gone, nope, not at all, but winter weather is one of the reaction conditions needed to finish off long lab days, full of creativity and motivation. Bringing up to the surface this memorable experience: Have you ever thought which is the best cocoa butter crystalline polymorph for either preparing double chocolate cookies or creamy bar chocolates?

I am sure, if someone comes up with such a weird question, I would give a what-face in answer, and then, transform it into an OMG face due to the fact, cocoa butter can crystallize into six polymorphic forms! Now, are you intrigued? The click on the following links to find the secrets behind the chocolate experience:

Finally, If you ask where to find the best chocolate in Mexico, unfortunately, I don’t know many options due to our chocolate tradition vanishing, mainly because of big corporations and the bad economy. Nevertheless, according with my experience, I can recommend visit the city of Oxaca which offers a great sensory experience. Yep! If you have been there once, then now your nose is being mesmerized by the smell of sugar, vanilla, cinnamon and toasted nuts - What a wonderful place is the city market of Oaxaca!

Saturday, 31 March 2012

Julio: Big Conference for Young Mathematicians

Here's an event that will take place at the University of Bristol on 2nd April 2012:

Young Researchers in Mathematics Conference 2012.

The Young Researchers in Mathematics Conference is an annual event that aims to involve post-graduate and post-doctoral students at every level. It is a chance to meet and discuss research and ideas with other students from across the country. The conference spans a wide variety of disciplines arranged into tracks, each of which includes a keynote speaker and contributed talks by young researchers. There will also be plenary lectures of interest to the entire audience. For a full list of tracks and keynote speakers, please visit the conference website.

Starts: 11:00am on 2nd April 2012
Finishes: 4th April 2012
Queen's Building on University Walk, University of Bristol.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Angel: Fancy riding the white lion?

I'm always thinking that I should stop my lab work for a sec to write something on this space, I would like to have plenty of time to write all those ideas coming up in my mind, along the day, such as beautiful crystals which not necessarily means progress in your research project or boast about astonishing sunsets from my preferential view on the sixth floor of the School of Chemistry - If you follow Great George on twitter, then you have seen one of these pictures!

My PhD has became something extremely addictive, even though, for along a period of time I have not got positive results. This non-stop apatite, to keep on to achieve the main objectives of my research project, drags me up long hours working into the lab, doing result analysis and reading; whether that the output of my research could show a highly impact on my field of study or not.

Of course in most of the cases, PhD students are always wishing, in some cases stating, that their research is going to have a huge impact on their areas. I wouldn’t lie saying that see "one of my publications" on the cover of one of those fancy journals or having loads of citations are not part of my ambitions. Nevertheless, rather to have on my plate such a heavy stress factor, I prefer do my best in something which could be exciting and delightful to myself. In the meantime, I am really anxious to see the output of my research project.

On the other hand, getting out of the context of this post, I would like to invite you to the Latin American Week, which will take place from 5-10 March 2012. Event organized for the School of Modern Languages:

Click on me to see the program!

Thursday, 16 February 2012

James: A week @ NPL: Day 4

I went in today to make the most of my last two days at NPL. Only to find my sample torn in two by the test rig having gone haywire in the night. Tragedy, or maybe not I know exactly what time, temperature and force it broke. So now I have a high temperature fracture surface to investigate.
So with extra data, although fortuitously, in hand I lay out the final few experiments required before I return to Bristol. I even found time to enjoy my lunch in the park by the River Thames, rather unseasonable 12 degrees in the Richmond area today.
So I left this evening my final over night run with far less apprehension than you may anticipate as even if it goes wrong I can still take something away from it.
One more sleep before the end of this little escapade.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

James: A week @ NPL: Day 3

Today was somewhat a different day again. After sleeping on my results, not literally, I was confident that I knew what was going on and that with some straight forward tests when I get home next week I will ascertain if I'm right or not.
So I arrived at NPL to conduct my experiments totally unflustered and relaxed. And everything went as planned which left me at a little of a loss and to realise that it is quite difficult to procrastinate without the internet or friends around. Thus I got my head down and set about quite a boring day of writing.
Hope to give you something more interesting to read tomorrow.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

James: A week @ NPL: Day 2

I found myself dragging my feet this morning, this was because after pondering over my experiment in the evening I felt that I only had one roll of the dice left before I may have to retreat home early with my tail between my legs.
So I pottered around doing any other job I could think of before testing my experiment again, eventually just before lunch I bit the bullet (before my sandwich). Amazingly it did something whether it had done what wanted was going to have to wait until after my lunch.
What I had change was the size of my samples, with thanks to the technicians at NPL. To give a little idea as to what I was up to, I was looking to conduct tests on metal samples to see how there resistivity changed with heat treatment but crucially this requires the sample getting hot when you put a high current through it. But yesterday when it didn't work the current density wasn't high enough thus making the samples smaller was an easy way to increase the current density running through the samples as I couldn't increase the current.
So the vital question when I came back from lunch what had happened? Well the exact opposite of what I expected! But as with all science any result is a positive one, you just have to understand what it means.
I have now also set one to run over night so we shall see what tomorrow brings.

Monday, 13 February 2012

James: A week @ NPL - Day 1

Occasionally in research you need equipment that your university does not have so you are required to go away to another university or facility.
I have had the opportunity to spend this week at the national physics laboratories to conduct some resistivity tests.
With coming away to do work it means you spend a lot of time planning and preparing so you become naturally very invested and excited about the experiment you are going to do. Myself when I turned up this morning had butterflies and loads of nervous energy. But unfortunately this works both ways; almost immediately what we were looking to do failed, which was totally gut wrenching. Still NPL is an impressive facility and we have been able to use their workshop in order to 'rescue' the work. This is the nature of research however, the work you are doing has never been done before so even with your best guess you don't know what is actually going to happen.
Looking forward to tomorrow (still) and a new attempt, let us hope I don't have to start again rethink.

Friday, 3 February 2012

James: Why do bookshops smell so good?

I am sure we have all come across an old book at one time or another opened it merely to stick our noses in. I for one do for it gives me a sense of that I am learning from the past. But little did I know, until very recently, that the compound that causes this blissful olfaction is one of the most common forms of organic polymer with only cellulose more abundant.

What I am talking about is Lignin; a complex chemical compound which acts as a main part of the secondary cell wall, in the plant cell diagram by Caroline Dahl you can see the secondary wall labelled.

So how and why old books, well the lignin is relatively aromatic as it is the key is when it breaks down over time one of the products being very closely related to vanillin. Which is the main extract of the vanilla bean. So that sweet scent emanating from the very pages of our favourite old books is due to the active decomposition of the ancient molecule that was once constructed by a tree in order to keep it's cell strong and protected from pathogens. It gives quite a view to the world around to think that so much must have come before to get us to where we are now. And with that poignant thought I leave you.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Milly: Make some cheese!

I really like cheese.

After some cheese based internet cruising I realised that I could realistically make some myself and so I set forth on a mission to curdle myself a brick of paneer. Since it is easy, cheap and fun (for those who don't get grossed out by things that look like vomit) I have decided to share with you, the joy of curdling.


Curdling. That thing you accidentally do during cooking when you add cold milk to hot things or when you leave milk in the fridge for so long that it gets a little chunky. Curdling milk is a necessary first step to make all cheeses. It occurs because, on addition of acid (lemon juice, vinegar or from the product of bacteria), the milk coagulates, no longer existing as a nice stable emulsion anymore but separating out into curds (solid) and whey (liquid). When you mix oil and water, an emulsion, eventually the oil will rise to the surface; this is the same with curdling as the more buoyant curds will float up and sit atop the watery whey, hoorwhey! For cheeses that wish to be hard, rennet must be added (extract of calf stomach), forming more cohesive curdling action via the action of enzymes. These cheeses go on to be inoculated with mould and what not but here I will simply demonstrate curdling cow's milk, with lemon juice, to form paneer, a simple cheese used in indian cookery (bit like solidified cottage cheese).


Step 1: Heat up a large amount of full fat milk (and only full fat). I used 4 pints. Use a medium heat and keep stirring or it may burn on the bottom (if this happens don't scrape it off, this will make things worse). At this stage you can add herbs/spices if you fancy.

Step 2: Once the milk is properly boiling (before this happens the milk might balloon into a giant dairy cloud so be ready to turn the heat down) add about half a lemon's worth of juice and stir gently. It should start to look disgusting, as shown in the picture. It should progress through the vomit stage (below) and start to look more lumpy, like overcooked scrambled eggs. If this doesn't happen add more lemon juice (shouldn't need more than 1 lemon if using 4 pints). If desired curdling has not been achieved, you may need to start again (this can happen if the milk is not hot enough).

Step 3: Pour the appealing mixture through a piece of muslin (try Kitchens, Whiteladies Road) sat in a colander and give it a rinse with cold water until the mixture is cool enough to handle. Give it a good squeeze to get out excess whey, wrap it up in the cloth tightly and sit a weight on top (big pan with tins in should do it).

Step 4: After about an hour the paneer should be a relatively solid block but it will probably still be quite crumbly.

Step 5: Cook the paneer! I fried mine in some oil to stop it from falling apart when I added it to a curry.

If you fancy a cheap meat alternative or something to make a lovely curry out of have a bash. I like cheese and I hope you do too.

Monday, 2 January 2012

James: Christmas Lectures

Now into the new year but a quite not over the christmas period so I suggest you look back to 'Royal Institution Christmas Lectures'.(They are all available on iplayer)

The man to give them this year, pictured here, is one of Bristol's very own Bruce Hood. Whom may already be known to you as he was interviewed for this very blog by Papi.