Thursday, 29 October 2015

Help us Discover Why #ScienceIsSpectacular

Ever wondered what the scientists at The University of Manchester get up? Well here’s your chance to find out as we turn Oxford Road into a giant laboratory this coming Halloween weekend with Spectacular Science.

With more than 40 interactive science experiments, there's something for everyone at this family fun day at Whitworth Hall and Manchester Museum, 11am – 4pm.


Step into the shoes of an aerospace engineer and face the power of our wind turbines as you explore the forces of flight – lift and drag. Help our atmospheric scientists to unearth the mysteries of one of the most destructive weather phenomena in nature as they power up the mini-tornado machine.


Become a biologist for the day as we ask what has fungi ever done for us, investigate how blood travels around the body, and discover why some species of turtles can live without oxygen for 6 months!

We’ll also explore the science behind music as you create your own musical instruments from weird and wonderful objects. Or perhaps you’d like to explore the marvelous world of biomaterials and technical textiles – be sure to help us test the strength and resistance of perhaps the world’s most popular material – chocolate.

You’ll have the chance to don on a lab coat and see how the brain responds when we watch and imitate someone, find out why we need mucus, or learn how to turn your phone into a super microscope as we take a closer look at our cells.

Or perhaps you’d like to help our computer scientists and engineers programme games, crack secret codes, build robots, or immerse yourself inside a virtual world where nothing is quite as it seems.


All of this and more as you help us to explore the wonder of science.

By Dee-Ann Johnson, The University of Manchester

Twitter: @UoMEngage #ScienceIsSpectacular

Bright Club Manchester – The BIG One!

What happens when you take five scientists and a historian and make them to do stand-up comedy? The answer is, of course, Bright Club! And tonight Bright Club Manchester will present The Big One – a round-up of the best performers for one evening only!

Bright club is the “thinking person’s variety show” and involves music and comedy with an academic twist. Come for the laughs, stay for the accidental learning of interesting things. The Big One is a special edition of Bright Club especially for the amazing Manchester Science Festival. It takes some of the best Bright Clubbers from the recent past and puts them all on one stage for your intellectual delectation.

What does it take to perform at Bright Club? The first characteristic needed by our performers is expertise in their field, whether that is forensic science, cell biology, history, psychology or neuroscience. The second is they have to have a passion for communicating science. They say “no, we don’t want our research to stay locked away behind a journal pay wall or buried in a dusty library. We want everyone to know about it”. The third, and possible most important, is that they have to be slightly nuts. They have to think that standing up and telling jokes in front of 200 people is a good idea (at least at the time they agreed to do it).

The training for Bright Club is gruelling, not unlike some of Sarita Robinson’s experiences as her alter ego, Dr Survival. Well, maybe a little different. No one’s life was at risk while they were put under huge amounts of stress but still, y’know, it did get a bit tense when the biscuits nearly ran out. The exact details of this mysterious training are a highly-guarded secret. We neither confirm nor deny that it involves sitting around, drinking tea, ignoring emails and thinking funny thoughts. Some performers have been rumoured to have so much fun at the training day that they completely forget they have to do a performance a couple of weeks later.

Who are these amusing academics, these side-splitting scientists and humorous historians, who have been trained within an inch of their life to become a crack team of wise-crackers?

Your funny bone will be tickled, although hopefully not by Forensic Scientist Cat Tennick, as she has a bit of a history regarding bones. She doesn’t have the nickname Dr Stabby for nothing.

You’ll also learn what might happen to the performers as they deal with the terrifying prospect of stand-up comedy. Sarita Robinson, better known as Dr Survival, can tell you how the stressful experience could affect their biochemistry.
There will be facts, there will be laughs, there will be puns. Most of the puns are likely to be provided by cell biologist Ben Stutchbury, who can’t resist a good (or bad) innuendo.

If you’ve ever wondered what a neuroscientist does, here’s your chance to find out. Lisa Heaney, will be addressing some bogus beliefs about the brain. Her first experience of Bright Club was so exciting that she did the whole thing again a week later at Science Showoff. Now she’s back as an (almost) seasoned performer to put right some neuroscience wrongs.

If you are a bozo when it comes to the ozone, Sophie Haslett will put you straight on any atmospheric debate. Aerosol Soph is an atmospheric chemist who was head hunted for her first Bright Club. She couldn’t say no the first time (she’s too polite), but after channelling her inner comedy goddess she didn’t hesitate to say yes to The Big One.

Last, but by no means least, we have historian Jessica van Horssen. She’s on board to make sure science is kept in check. Jess will tell us all about how scientists get things wrong, albeit almost 100 years after they do so. To her, doing stand-up about her research is like climbing Everest: incredibly challenging but equally exhilarating (minus the sore legs, of course).

This blog post is by Sarita Robinson, Jessica van Horssen and Lisa Heaney.  

Come and see them tonight (29th Oct) as families have been abandoned, PhD writing has been postponed and student advisors ignored in order to bring you the best that Bright Club has to offer.

For more information and tickets for tongight's Bright Club event, go to


Follow us on Twitter @BrightClubMCR

Friday, 23 October 2015

The John Rylands Library holds many treasures that map the development of science throughout the world: from 18th-century Japanese botanical albums, through James Audubon’s Birds of America, to the laboratory notebooks of Professor Sir Konstantin Novoselov, recording the development of Graphene right here in Manchester in the 21st century.

Some of our most gruesome images come from anatomy texts such as Vesalius’ Anatomia (1604), and in some of the diaries and letters in our collection we can trace public spectacles, such as Lunardi’s hot air balloon ascent in Mary Hamilton’s diary. We could endlessly list the wonderful things we have, but it wouldn’t be all that exciting for you, which is why we want you to get involved.

Vesalius' Anatomia (1604)

For Manchester Science Festival, we want to find out, once and for all, who is everyone’s favourite Manchester scientist! We’ve come up with five major figures in Mancunian scientific history for you to choose from: Bernard LovellAlan TuringJoseph WhitworthJames Joule and John Dalton. All of them live on in our collections, in books, images and archive documents. To take the title of everyone’s favourite Manchester scientist, they need your votes. So head to the voting page to find out more about each of these great Manchester scientists and support your favourite (or head to the bottom of this post to cast your vote directly).
Alan Turing
Bernard Lovell
To help you decide, come along to The John Rylands Library on 30 October, between 12 noon and 2pm, to discover highlights from our scientific collections and learn more about the stories behind them. We’ll be showcasing items relating to the top front-running scientists as voted by you, plus there’ll be an opportunity to add to the voting on the day.

If you’re excited as we are about our Manchester Science Festival exhibitions and events, you can also join us on 29 October, our Thursday Late, for a unique opportunity to meet the Manchester-based artist behind our Noisy Bodies exhibition, Daksha Patel.

Let us know who you’ve voted for – and why – by tweeting us @TheJohnRylands.


By Harry Jelley, The John Rylands Library

Thursday, 22 October 2015

The science of fashion technology

Textiles and fashion are vibrant and innovative industry sectors and recent scientific developments allow researchers to improve the fit and sizing of garments as well as gain insights into fashion consumer behaviour.

Body scanning technology uses image capture devices to render real 3D objects as virtual 3D objects, so for instance, people as avatars. Modern body scanners such as the Size Stream typically use infra-red depth sensors, similar to those used in interactive home video games systems, which are positioned at different angles and heights to get full body coverage in a few seconds without any contact. Specialist software then coverts the sensor data into high quality 3D scans which can be used to define body measurements, population shapes and sizes, enabling analysis of individuals as well as populations. 

Body scans help to better inform fashion product development, supporting bespoke garment development as well as allowing greater insights for improving size and fit in mass produced garments. Researchers at The University of Manchester use this technology to investigate methods for creating custom garments, to develop sizing systems and to investigate human size shape and proportion.

As well as application in sizing and fit innovation, technological advances also enable us to better understand fashion consumer behaviour. Mobile eye-trackers are designed for capturing consumer data in the real world, as they are able to collect eye-movement data whilst the wearer moves freely and naturally in any situation, for example through a shopping mall or department store. The Tobii Glasses have five cameras built into a lightweight head unit, one of which faces forward and records the wearer’s view. The other four face the wearer’s eyes to capture how the pupils are moving, which enables to system to place exactly where the wearer is looking. The eye-movement data that is captured includes fixations, saccades and scan paths. A fixation happens when the eyes are stationary on one point and typically lasts between 100-600 milliseconds. A saccade is the extremely fast movement of the eyes between these fixations, while a scan path shows the order of the fixations and saccades in chronological order.  

To analyse eye-tracking data, researchers firstly determine the areas of interest (AOIs) in the wearer’s scene, then look at metrics such as the total fixation duration or the time to first fixation. The total fixation duration metric gives an indication of the AOI which the wearer found most interesting or engaging, as they gave it most of their attention. The time to first fixation metric would be useful for understanding how long it might take a shopper to notice a particular advert or offer in a store.

Not only does science allow us to track what consumers are looking at, there are also possibilities to understand their brain activity when they are shopping for fashion or being exposed to marketing communications, such as adverts. 

An EEG (electroencephalogram) is a non-invasive procedure which measures the brain’s electrical activity at different sites on the head using electrodes placed on the scalp, and is used in a medical context to diagnose epilepsy and sleep disorders. However, with the advancements of technology and demands for insight into the subconscious aspects of human behaviour such as attention, emotion and decision making, the EEG is also being used in other fields such as neuro-marketing to provide a window into the mind of the consumer. 

EEG recordings are typically measured through frequency analysis, or the presence of different brain oscillations. There are five main frequency bands (alpha, beta, theta, delta and gamma), of which two are associated with common modes of behaviour: the measurement of relaxation (alpha rhythms) and focused attention (beta rhythms). With these, it is possible to understand what part of the brain is active whilst the consumer is shopping. It can also communicate with the computer via the brain and thus has many future uses in gaming and artificial intelligence. It provides accurate results and can be combined with other technological inputs such as the eye-tracker. The Emotiv EEG headset is particularly easy to use as it only requires placement on the head, without the usual gel and careful placing of electrodes on the scalp used in a medical context.


The Pi: Interactive Textiles and Fashion Technology event on Friday 30 October provides a unique opportunity to personally experience all of these technologies and meet researchers and doctoral students from The University of Manchester’s School of Materials to find out more. Get scanned in our Sizestream 3D bodyscanner and take a print-out of your very own 3D avatar. Wear the Tobii Mobile Glasses and see how your eye movements are tracked on the laptop beside you. Try on the Emotiv EEG headset and see how you can control a game with your thoughts. 

By Patsy Perry, University of Manchester

Peer review poetry


Since the beginning of scientific discovery, poets have written about science; while scientists have written poetry. In Peer review poetry, Dan Simpson represents the former and Dr Sam Illingworth scientists. Together, they consider the artistic value and scientific integrity of the two worlds and how they interact...

From Sam, the scientist:

When we seek and observe nature’s beauty
There is one question that always stands out:
For is science exceeding its duty,
Or is it poems that we can do without?

Keats and Poe thought that science was ugly,
And that it stole from us nature’s intent;
Feynman wondered why the poets smugly
Did make their claims based on some false descent.

Are both fields yet aware of their defects?
As with their words they try trap nature’s soul
For its beauty is one of their objects
That alone they cannot hope capture whole.

To find out why their fighting is absurd,

Come see us on October twenty-third.

By Sam Illingworth, Manchester Metropolitan University

From Dan, the poet:

Heavy elements
constitute art and science:
common gravity. 

Poems are guesswork
intuitive estimates
sometimes revealing. 

Science is precise
accurate observations
sometimes beautiful. 

Poetry creates
our world as we perceive it
science understands.

Immortal poet!
not immortal after all:
universe heat death.

Show numbers and words
to describe our Universe
shine light on the truth.

Waves or particles?
Artist or scientist? We’re
gloriously both.

By Dan Simpson, poet

The Outbreak Game


Sometimes we get the strangest ideas in the most unlikely moments and this was certainly one of them. 

The idea for “Outbreak!”, an interactive street game which brings together film-makers, game designers and scientists came to me as I was brushing my teeth, one cold grey winter morning. I had been playing in my head with the idea of creating an event that could engage people of different ages and backgrounds in an active way around the topic of public health, but until that point I hadn't quite figured out how. 


Then, all of a sudden, something clicked and I rushed to my phone to call Jana, a friend who specialises, among many other things, in games design. It didn’t take long to get her and Dr. Joanne Pennock, immunologist from the University of Manchester, involved in the project and before I knew it we were working towards the most unconventional and bizarre science communication project I have ever been involved in.



At the core of the game is the desire to target perhaps one of the biggest misconception in science, the idea that science is either right or wrong, black or white, correct or inexact. Anyone who has worked in a scientific environment will know too well that things are never so clean cut and even though we so often read in the media that “science says”, what that really means is “some people have agreed on this interpretation of data”.


With this game and interactive experience we want to highlight the difficulties in science and how science crosses over with policy making, especially when time and resources are limited, as in the case of dealing with an outbreak, where making “right” interpretations and choices becomes increasingly more difficult. By placing players in that awkward but interesting role of scientific advisors to the Government, we want to force them to think on their feet, independently, under a time pressure, wearing the labcoat of the scientist, the suit of the politician and the skin of the citizen, having to realise there is no perfect choice and that often compromises involve some losses, however much you might want to avoid that.



By Greta, Outbreak


Twitter - @OutbreakMcr

Hopped on Music

Some things it seems are just meant to be. Timing, coincidence, luck - they all combine to spark an idea. That's what happened with Hopped on Music.

I knew of Pete Brown, I'd bought a few of his books for my other half as gifts one Christmas, so one afternoon as I listened to the radio at work, it was announced he'd be chatting to the host that afternoon. My interest was piqued, even though I normally let the words and music flow over me, that afternoon I listened more, paid more attention.

As he chatted to Stuart Maconie, Pete mentioned is workshops where he matches beers with music - different styles of beer work with different sounds, so much so that those who attended the sessions would contact him afterwards to tell how they tried a beer elsewhere and the song popped into their head, or they heard the song and suddenly they could taste the beer.

My mind made the connection with Hooked on Music. Our senses are intertwined with our emotions and memories in a fascinating way. Taste a childhood food and you're back there. The scent of a fabric conditioner can take you back to your grans house, or a familiar song can take you on a journey to a slow dance at the school disco.

Matching beer to music, is a way of playing with our senses and creating new memories, new connections, and as Pete very kindly agreed to visit us up north (and Manchester Science Festival agreed to let us run the workshop), we'll be matching 5 beers with pieces of music in the basement of Kosmonaut.

Pete's own inspiration was a piece of research from Heriot Watt University in 2008, looking at the effect of music on wine. Being of the beery persuasion, he looked into matching music to brews, resulting in the workshop that will be Hopped on Music. 


Personally, I'm really keen to see if trumpets really do taste like hops.

By Charlie Hooson-Sykes, Gin Fuelled

Wanted: 40 Facts about the Future of Food

The Greater Manchester Skeptics Society are looking for 40 facts about food security and food production to be presented as part of their event “The Future of Food”. The event explored the common ground between scientists and activists regarding our ability to feed a growing population in years to come. Together with the talks and discussions on the 23rd October, these facts will cover a great range of issues, from local food production in Manchester to the loss of key food sources worldwide.

Fact #1: Crickets need 12 times less feed than cattle to produce the same amount of protein.

According to a report for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, more than 1,900 species of insects have been used as food, as part of the diet of 2 billion people. Insects have many environmental benefits compared to traditional livestock. They require less water and less land to be cleared for farming and emit fewer greenhouse gases. Being cold-blooded, they are also more efficient at turning feed into body mass.

Image classified as in the public domain
NordGen/Dag Terje Filip Endresen

Fact #2: The Svalbard Global Seed Vault contains around 860,000 samples, protecting these crop varieties for the future.

One of many seed banks around the world, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault was built in 2008 and was designed to withstand disasters such nuclear war. Each variety of a crop may be suited to different climates or resilient against particular pests, and can be used by scientists to breed stronger crops. The first request for seeds was made by the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, after the crisis in Syria forced it to relocate.

Image classified as in the public domain
Danilo Cedrone (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization)

Fact #3: Nearly 3 billion people rely on fish as a major source of protein.

According to the World Wildlife Fund’s “Living Blue Planet” report, nearly 3 billion people receive at least 20% of their protein intake from fish. Average consumption of fish per capita has nearly doubled since the 1960s. As it stands, 29% of the world’s fish stocks are classified as overfished and 61% as fully exploited, meaning that there is no way to increase the amount of fish caught. Increasingly, species are being caught which have longer life spans and take longer to reach maturity, meaning that it takes longer for populations to recover.

If you have a fact to contribute, send it to events@gmss.uk or tweet using the hashtag #futureoffood. If possible, include a link to the source of the information.


The Future of Food event will be at the Museum of Science and Industry on Friday 23rd October, starting at 7pm. For more details, visit the Manchester Science Festival website.

By Vicky Stiles, Greater Manchester Skeptics Society

Monday, 16 March 2015

Winning the Josh Award

Guest post from 2014 Josh Award winner Sarah Bearchell...

Sometimes curiosity has amazing consequences…. 
 
As Josh Award winner and as part of the Manchester Science Festival 2014, I visited Springwood School in Swinton, Greater Manchester.  The primary school has about 170 pupils who have a wide range of Special Educational Needs. The workshops were very simple: we made some clouds using dry ice and warm water as a way to explore states of matter.

The children were instantly excited when they saw the white water vapour tumbling out of our experiment.  They were utterly amazed when they were able to feel how cold and wet it was as it ran through their fingers. They heard the bubbling of the carbon dioxide as it sublimed from a solid into a gas and felt the vibrations as the bubbles popped when they reached the surface of the water. We also added blackcurrant squash to the mixture so that our clouds smelled and tasted of blackcurrants.  It was a full sensory experience!
 
video
 

As we worked, we used scientific language to talk about solids, liquids and gases. The more vocally-able children really enjoyed this new terminology and joined in with a loud shout of the word ‘sublimation!’  Some of the most able children asked questions about reaction rates and we were able to do experiments to investigate.

The equipment I use is designed to get the children as close as possible to the experiment, whilst keeping them safe. Dry ice is very cold; at about -78°C, that’s roughly the same temperature as the South Pole in winter. If you touch it you can get frost burns which are really painful. The experiment boxes have lids so that little fingers cannot get in but there are small holes so the cloud can escape. They are also safe to carry around so I can take the experiment to mobility impaired children.  It’s really important to me that every child can access the activities.

The Josh Award funded me to develop a new piece of equipment which I call ‘The Cloud Machine’ and with it, every child could control the making of a dry ice cloud. Most children were able to pull the cord which releases the dry ice into the warm water but some severely disabled children controlled their cloud formation by indicating to their carer when to pull the cord. Their delight was universal, as was their sense of empowerment.

I had a fantastic time exploring with the children at Springwood School but the response of one particular child raises a huge smile every time I think of him…

I was working with a group of children who were about 6 or 7 years old.  All of them were mobile, although one little boy was walking with a frame.  We made our first cloud amongst great excitement and when I made the second cloud I invited the children to come and explore it on the floor.  They all came forward with enormous enthusiasm, including the little boy who left his frame to crawl over to the cloud.

When I lifted the box to show how the bubbles were moving, the boy held on to me and pulled himself up into a standing position. He was absolutely fascinated by what was happening. When I turned to show the other children what was happening, the little boy stepped forward to follow the box.

He was walking unsupported and his teachers were utterly amazed. 

His scientific curiosity had driven him to walk and I am really proud that I had the privilege to be there when he did.
 
Check out Sarah's website for more information and pictures: https://sites.google.com/site/sarahsadventuresinscience/the-josh-award