Sci Comm Stories – My most awkward 15 minutes in sci comm

So yesterday I had the mild embarrassment of saying the word ‘cock’ rather than ‘clock’ to a P7 class made up of 10 and 11 year olds. Safe to say it was not my finest moment, but these sort of slips are common for science communicators when delivering so many shows and activities, and eventually you are bound to say something not quite right or full of innuendo.

It got me thinking of other embarrassing or awkward situations I have experienced in my time in science communication, and it reminded me one outstanding moment which was probably the most awkward 15 minutes I have ever experienced in the field.

It was from the Edinburgh Science Festival in 2013. This was my second run as a science communicator at the festival and for the duration two week period the festival was running I was helping out at a drop in workshop all about tin box cameras and photography. The workshop itself consisted of 8 people sitting on stools, with spotlights shining on them and a row of tin box cameras placed on a shelf in front of each. The lead presenter would then give a quick introduction to photography before explaining that the participants had to hold a pose for a whole minute to allow us to get a clear image of them to take away. They would then hold this pose as the aperture of the tin box camera was opened before it was eventually closed once again at the end of the minute. The participants would then take their camera into a ‘dark room’ and develop their photograph using three different chemicals, after which they would then have a permanent memento of the festival.

At the time I actually wrote a blog about that festival and the photography workshop, which can be found here: https://sincyscience.com/2013/04/16/a-brief-history-of-photography-from-the-edinburgh-science-festival/

Anyway, the festival was just entering its second week, and for this particular workshop I happened to be the lead presenter. The next group of eight sat down on their seats and included two young girls no older than 13 or 14. I did my usual spiel encouraging different unique poses, for example peace signs or even collaborations if they were quick enough, then got ready to open the tin box cameras. I counted down from 3, during which everyone went into their poses, and then opened the cameras.

Once all the cameras were open I then looked back to see what poses they had come up with, only to see that one of the girls had decided to grab her ankles and stretch her legs as wide as possible…

Now I hope I don’t need to explain why this pose might be a little bit awkward and I made sure to spin around to avoid any unwarranted accusations. However, what made it even more awkward was the fact that the girls father had been watching her during the workshop up to that point, and as I spun around I was met with a piercing look that could have burned through my skull and pretty much said ‘what the fuck have you told my daughter to do?’!

Of course, I looked away from this gaze immediately to anywhere else in the room, only to look upon a group of fellow science communicators who had noticed everything that was going on and who were also giving me a look of ‘what the fuck have you told this girl to do’!

I shot back a look of ‘I have no idea what’s going on’ and then just stared at the clock, just begging for the seconds to tick faster!

Eventually the clock hit 58, 59 and finally 60, and I closed up all the cameras and the participants stopped their poses. Relief all round, however the story continues…

The participants collected their cameras, followed me into the dark room then each stood in front of a group of trays containing the chemicals needed to produce the photograph.

The process itself is actually quite interesting, when you place your photo in the developer solution the silver nitrate particles on the paper react and turn into solid silver. The more light that had hit the paper the more silver on show, resulting in a darker area at that point and essentially you were creating a metallic photograph.

Now this process gradually fades in and is a really cool thing to see, and you can’t help getting excited to see it. However this very same girl got extra excited at the sight of her photo revealing itself and proceeded yell ‘oh its coming……… oh it’s coming!……… OH IT’S COMING!’

At this point I am in tears in the corner of a dark room just trying not to giggle, struggling to comprehend what I have witnessed in the previous 10 minutes!

I somehow managed to get everyone to the point of ‘fixing’ their photo so that it not longer reacted to the light outside the dark room, and gradually they left to continue their enjoyment of the festival. Once they had all finished I walked out the dark room myself, to be met by a row of science communicators with arms crossed and feet tapping.

One of them simply went, ‘……..Well?’

So the lesson I learned that day was truly anything can happen when you deliver a show or workshop!

TBC1

Sci Comm Stories – Celeb Spotting

Due to the huge number of channels on TV, as well as the multiple social media platforms available, there are thousands of people that could be defined as a ‘celebrity’. Naturally this opinion changes from person to person as some folk don’t class reality TV stars as celebrities (for example) and others would say some people are just famous rather than a celebrity.

Now, in the many years I have been a science communicator I have comfortably spoken with at least 100,000 people, which admittedly is a wild estimate as I have no evidence to back it up with out having a clicker on me counting every single person I have spoken too, but we are definitely into six figures! These engagements have either been through exhibitions, festivals, workshops or shows and due to the sheer number of people involved the two bubbles of ‘celebrities’ and general public often cross one another, with the result being me meeting a huge variety of personalities, and even some well know faces.

I’ll come straight out with the one outstanding A lister I have crossed paths with which was James McAvoy, who visited Glasgow Science Centre in 2015. I was waiting at the entrance to the Science Show Theatre when he approached with his son wondering if he could come in and watch. The show had been booked and paid for by a school, so we didn’t openly offer it to the public, but if there was space and a member of the public wanted to come in then we would be more than happy to seat them at the back. It was one of those times when I had my customer orientated hat on and I was actually too focused on listening to McAvoys enquiry that I didn’t actually realise it was him at first, and he understandably had a baseball cap on as well to hide his face a bit more. It was only once he had taken his seat that it twigged with me, and I immediately entered the back booth to say to the other science communicator that was in the theatre that day that James McAvoy just walked in and will be watching the show. Understandably thinking I was taking the piss they had to peer through the back window to check, before turning back to me and saying ‘f*cking hell, James McAvoy is watching the show!’

goods_014440_221284
James McAvoy as Professor Charles Xavier in the X-men franchise

This is obviously something that doesn’t happen every day, so I began my show with my usual gusto and gradually built up the audience by encouraging the right noises at the right time throughout the show. These would be things like cheering, clapping, stomping of feet, and (friendly) booing, and at one point I got the school class to do it all in one go generating a lot of excitement and noise. It was at this point that James McAvoy and his son got up and walked out the theatre, barely staying for 5 minutes!

Slightly puzzled, I carried on with the rest of the show and when I finished I walked back up the stairs to our back booth and asked the other science communicator why he left. It turned out that the school class where making so much noise cheering, clapping and stomping their feet that McAvoy junior got frightened and had to leave the theatre.

So I can say I once terrified James McAvoys son, which is something I’d hope very few people could say as well!

Other ‘celebs’ that visited the science centre were Gary Lewis, probably best known for being Billy Elliots angry Scottish dad, and Ben Miller, who is half of the comedy duo Armstrong & Miller and part of the Johnny English series of films.

But it was during the 2014 commonwealth games that the quantity of famous faces increased. For one thing, you would see loads of medalists about as the BBC studios where just across the road from the science centre and they had set up a fan zone in the area in between.

As part of the offer the science centre had brought in an exhibition called ‘In the Zone!’, which was developed and run by another science centre called AtBristol (Now called We the Curious). This was themed around a TV studio with the participants being the presenters of their own show as they went through 6 or 7 activities in about 15 minutes. These were based on sport, health and wellbeing and included challenges such as jumping as high as you can, handcycling for a full minute, and peaking with a 20m sprint through a finish line. Each activity was filmed meaning at the end each participant had a 7 part ‘show’ that they could access online and show others. It was free to take part so we were always busy, meaning that when you were in charge of one of the sections you were constantly talking to the public all the time with no time in between each group. You swapped activity every 30 minutes to keep your mind fresh but eventually you would need a break, which was a huge reason why the GSC staff enjoyed a shift in ‘In the Zone!’ because they were plenty!

In a normal shift at GSC you would get 40 minutes throughout the day, but at ‘In the Zone’ you got two breaks of 30 minutes AND an hour for lunch! This meant you could enjoy the sunshine, explore the rest of the fanzone and watch some of the actual commonwealth games rather than just talk about them. GSC actually argued against this, insisting that we only got our usual 40 minutes, but AtBristol didn’t back down and said it was important to have the extra breaks due to the intensity of the engagement. So it was an unusual situation where another company was actually looking out for our well being than our own employers!

On top of the ‘In the Zone!’ activities you would occasionally be allocated 30 minutes to go science busking with the crowds in the fanzone. You would head out with a partner and a bag full of small science activities and try and chat to as many people as possible. One of the activities involved a small ball with two smaller electrodes on either side, with the idea being that if you were to put a finger from each hand on each electrode then it would make a loud buzzing noise, as you were creating your own circuit using your own nervous system. The party trick though was to get more people involved by holding hands in a circle then have two people place a finger each on an electrode and create a large human circuit! You could get about 10 before the distance around the circle became too great and the buzzing would stop.

One day I managed to coax a family of about 8 into doing this very experiment and ended up joining in and holding hands with an absolutely giant of a man, who looked like he was in his 50s. He was wearing official Scotland training gear so I spent a moment trying to think if he was an athlete/coach, or just a really enthusiastic fan. And then it struck me, this man mountain was Gavin Hastings, the Scottish and British Lions rugby legend. And here was me holding his hand! Truly bizarre, and it did explain why he had such a firm grip!

4969abd400000578-5414635-image-a-49_1519157158370
Gavin Hastings in action for Scotland in the 90s

On another day during the Commonwealth Games the science centre had a royal visit. Princess Anne was invited to look through the latest exhibition gallery called Bodyworks, and a huge pathway was barriered off during the day so that she could get in an out without any fuss. I was doing some more science busking with a mum and her son when she arrived and started walking down this pathway. I asked the boy if he knew who she was and encouraged him to wave by waving myself in the direction of Princess Anne. The boy did not wave however, and left me awkwardly waving at Princess Anne when no one else was!

To her credit she did actually wave back! And now we are best buds as a result……

Now, working in science communication does give you the opportunity to meet some inspiring people in the field, particularly astronauts. GSC once managed to get Commander Chris Hadfield of ‘Space Oddity guitar player on the space station’ fame to host a large quiz event for them, and when the National Museum of Scotland hosted Tim Peakes space capsule I managed to chat with him for a few moments after he had officially opened the display.

32697817_1742232089189604_8544125626167066624_n
Tim Peake at the launch of his capsule display at National Museum of Scotland

So if you ever want to increase you chances of bumping into a famous face then I recommend getting into public engagement.

Sci Comm Stories – Halloween……

Its Halloween!!!!

Admittedly I have never really been one to celebrate this ‘holiday’, even when I was younger, as I didn’t go out guising (‘treat or treating’ to others) and only would dress up if there was an organised Halloween night through school or cubs. That meant that by the time I was a teenager my Halloweens where no different to any other night of the year, and that continued as I went through uni. (I was partial to a viewing of Nightmare Before Christmas however)

It was not until I joined Glasgow Science Centre that I would end up ‘celebrating’ Halloween again, as they host a huge yearly late night family event. During my time there I ended up taking part in four of these, with a very competitive staff costume competition being one of the highlights each year.

In my first year I was naïve enough not to realise how seriously it was taken, so I went as someone that didn’t cost too much to put together, Shaun from ‘Shaun of the Dead’. All I did was spray my hair orange, and pop on a white shirt, red tie and black trousers, before spattering myself with blood.

Safe to say I was no where near winning that years contest, but a lesson had been learned in how creative and serious GSC employees will get when it comes to costume design!

Inspired and determined from the previous years’ experience, year two saw me think a bit left field and dress up as an actual exhibit in the science centre. On the third floor there was a chap called ‘the Homunculus’, which showed what the human body would look like if the most sensitive areas were proportional to actual body size. It meant he had a giant head, huge lips, big feet, and enormous hands (plus a noticeable bulge in a certain area!)

 

 

Year three saw a more traditional scary character, becoming the king of Halloween himself ‘Jack Skeleton’ from ‘the Nightmare before Christmas’, before my final year producing a very fun ‘Hades’ from the Hercules Disney cartoon (It was my penultimate day at GSC so wanted to go out with a bang!)

As great as they turned out to be none of my costumes were awarded the best of GSC in either year, but the Homunculus was pretty darn close!

Anyway, we did more than just dress up on GSC Halloween night as there were loads of science activities to present. Three out of the 4 years I was in the auditorium presenting science shows; creating dragon breath, crushing pixies to produce light, setting fire to ogre farts etc, but in year one I was assigned to lung dissections.

Traditionally lung dissections where very calm and methodical affairs, but for that Halloween me and a colleague decided to make our public as squeamish as possible; throwing bits of lung in a pie, wearing sections of windpipe as rings, and I even ‘chased’ a few kids whilst holding a whole set of lungs. Looking back we fairly got into character, so much so that a parent came up to our table, took a couple of calculated looks between the mutilated sets of lungs and my blood soaked hands full of improvised oesophagus jewellery, then declared:

‘Those lungs cant be real, as no sane person would be doing that!’

As it turns out, there was one such mad man, so ladies and gentlesmen, I give you the ‘Butcher of GSC’……..

500_autoposyHalloween

BONUS STORY!!!!!!!

So it has been a while since I wrote up the first ‘Sci Com Story’ and there is a justified reason for it. At the start of the month I began my second story (different to the one above, confusing I know!) and had it saved on my laptop. I do a lot of travelling between Glasgow and Edinburgh due to living in one city and working in the other, and my laptop comes with me from time to time.

It was on one such occasion I was actually doing a bit of work for the National Museum of Scotland, where I had brought our ‘Powering Up’ renewable energy activities to the  IKEA store just outside of Edinburgh as part of the Midlothian Science Festival. I had hired a van to move all my equipment and when I had unloaded it all onto a trolley I decided to put my bag (which contained my laptop) in the back of the van for safe keeping.

I then spent the next few hours engaging with IKEA customers with the model wind turbines and solar panels I had brought, before it was time to re pack the van. By this time the sun had set and it was really dark in the car park, with few street lights about. So it took out my bag, loaded the boxes into the back of the van, closed the doors and jumped in the drivers seat to get ready to head home.

There was a car still parked in front of me, but the space next to it was empty, so thinking I was being clever I decided to reverse out a few feet then go back forward through this gap towards the car park exit. What I did not expect though was the large bump of the back wheels as I moved forward.

At first I was confused, as I was sure the space lines wouldn’t have caused such a big lift, then it dawned on me what happened as I noticed the empty seat beside me where my bag had sat on the journey to IKEA. Fearing the worst I got out and walked round to the back of the van to find my bag wedged into the back wheel!

So yes kids, I can now say I have once run over my laptop with a van!

20181031_141021

*Its been fixed now! And the saved story will be posted next week.

Sci Comm Story – When the back up plan fails…..

I think I should start off with a bit of background info about me.

I stumbled into my career path in science communication purely as a way to make ends meet, having spent the previous few months signing my name on a dotted line to receive a monthly allowance from the government. I had graduated in the summer of 2011 with a degree in Physics which had got me absolutely nowhere jobs wise, to the point where I had to accept roles in hockey coaching and stacking shelves at M&S to keep me occupied over the next 6 months. These temporary roles didn’t exactly justify the effort in getting my degree, and certainly gave me the feeling that I may have wasted the previous 4 years.

That was until I saw ‘science communicator’ positions advertised for the Edinburgh International Science Festival for their Easter festival in 2012.

The idea of science communication was completely new to me but having spent time coaching hockey and helping out youth groups such as beavers and cubs I thought I’d go for it, plus at least it was something to do with my science degree. Of course, I since now know that you don’t need a science degree to be a science communicator, and that festival opened my eyes to the wide variety of backgrounds that are involved in presenting science workshops and shows to family audiences.

I luckily did just enough in my interview to be offered a science communicator role and spent the two weeks of the festival running a workshop which allowed kids to programme lego mindstorm robots to follow black lines and carry out different tasks, and it was awesome! I was hooked, and fortunately more work followed with the Edinburgh Science Festival as I toured the country with a Paralympics Exhibition in the lead up to London 2012, before heading out to the Abu Dhabi Science Festival to train local students in science communication and run a workshop on photography. These 6 months were some of the best in my life so far as each job resulted in greater and greater experiences in places I never imagined myself going to at the time.

971645_10151613659358461_367426681_n
The Ottobock ‘Passion for the Paralympics’ Exhibition 2012

However, there was a down side.

For all the travel to various places around the UK and UAE was awesome, there were periods of 2-3 weeks in between each event in which there was nothing to do, and this inactivity proved very frustrating. Any money I did save was immediately used up, and as someone who still lived at home with a large student overdraft it was clear I couldn’t carry on with the on off nature of the work. It was actually during this time I started up my own website to write about different science topics that caught my eye, and which has now developed into experiment videos and these sci com stories! I digress however. I needed something permanent, and ideally still in science communication.

After a botched attempt to live in America for 3 months (which is another story in itself!) I seized my opportunity and became a science communicator for Glasgow Science Centre. Here I could speak to the public about one of the many science exhibits in the science mall, lead on the floor workshops for kids, do a bit of science busking whenever there was an opportunity, and more importantly could do it 5 days out 7 with no official end date. However, a big part of me wanting to join GSC was to do more performance-based science communication rather than workshops, so after a few months I was starting to get a bit agitated. It was the beginning of the summer holidays when I joined so the two performance areas of the science centre – the science show theatre and the planetarium -already had enough presenters without a desperate need to train more. I would have to wait that bit longer for my chance.

There was a crumb offered however as lung dissections were introduced during that same summer. The first time I dissected a set of lungs I felt pretty squeamish but its freakish how quickly you get used to slicing up a set, and after a quick run through for the senior science communicators to prove my competency, I was ready to go. The dissections were held on the top floor of the science centre in an open planned area containing some tables and exhibits. As the event was drop in (i.e. you just turn up) there could be no predicting how many people would be in your audience. On a quiet day you could have only 10 visitors but on a busy day you could have easily 150 crammed into the space with every set of eyes focused on you slicing up the lungs. It was the latter that presented itself to me when it was time for my first dissection, and safe to say that was pretty intimidating, however I managed to get through it despite the realisation seconds before hand that I had never used a headset microphone before and didn’t know how far away from my mouth I should position it. In the end placing the mic as close as possible to my mouth was the wrong choice, which resulted in my nervous breathing echoing around the science centre when I didn’t speak. A quick lesson learned.

11049495_903994719680016_1747041270367899168_n
One of the many dissections I did at GSC

After a month of doing dissections it was decided by the seniors that I would be a presenter in the Science Show Theatre. Apparently there was a big debate on where to actually place me, either in the SST or the Planetarium, and because of a couple of years at university where I studied astronomy the senior in charge of the Planetarium thought I’d be ideal in there. In the end though my desire to present science shows won through, and the planetarium would have to wait another year before it got me as a presenter, which I will tell a few stories about another time.

The first science show I was trained in was a show about digestion, ‘Blood, Bile and Body Bits’. On the day of my first show I was full of nervous energy and excitement. Its key to start a show well and GSC had a system where they would dim the lights and fade out the background music before putting on an adrenaline pumping track (‘Supermassive Black Hole’ by Muse was always popular) and a set of flashing disco lights as the presenter went down the stairs and onto the stage. Because I was already buzzing with excitement, when I descended those steps for the first time the new music resulted in me clapping my hands to the beat in a bid to get the whole audience to join in. No one clapped back.

A strong start then. I continued onto the stage and gave a loud ‘Hello!’ and then do no remember anything that happened in the next 30 minutes. It could have been the best show in the world, but more likely it would sit on the scale probably a lot nearer the worst. I have no recollection either way, apart from right at the end of my show explaining to the audience that it was my first show and thanking them for being a forgiving audience, which got a collective ‘awwww’ in response so make of that what you will.

20130923_112053
Blood Bile and Body Bits Science Show – Glasgow Science Centre 2013

‘Blood, Bile…..’ wasn’t around for long though. After a couple of weeks I was trained in a brand new show for GSC called ‘Water, Water Everywhere!’. This contained far more exciting demonstrations, including hydrogen balloons, water pistols, and climaxing with a liquid nitrogen explosion. That last experiment is actually the cause of what this story has being leading up to.

How it works is you pour a small amount of liquid nitrogen into a 500ml bottle, seal it with the bottle cap, throw it in a barrel, and pour tonnes of ping pong balls over it. The room temperature boils the liquid nitrogen turning it into a gas, and because there is nowhere for this gas to escape the pressure in the bottle builds up to such an extent that the bottle explodes and throws the ping pong balls in all directions.

Now this large explosion is pretty daunting when you first perform the experiment as you do not know when it is going to go off, and if you happen to be holding the bottle at that precise time then you would most likely end up fracturing your hand, which I can imagine isn’t very pleasant!

As a consequence of this possible danger your natural reaction is then to try and twist the bottle cap on as quickly as possible before throwing it into the barrel and getting the hell out of there as your colleague pours ping pong balls on top. You wear blast shields over your face and everything!

In the rush though sometimes the cap wasn’t fully sealed and the nitrogen gas would hiss out of the bottle. There would be no explosion, which was a big disappointment for the presenter and more importantly the audience.*

Another thing we would encourage our audience in the science show theatre to do is to give us the right noises and reactions at the right time. For example, if they really enjoyed an experiment they would be encouraged to cheer, whoop, clap and stomp their feet, and conversely if something went wrong then they we encouraged to do a friendly comedy boo. It wasn’t directed at the presenter however but to the science communicator assisting the show in the back booth, whose job was to change the powerpoint slides as well as control the music and lights, and who the audience were told had ‘set up’ all the experiments as well. Of course, the actual show presenter would also set up the experiments beforehand but it was a good tactic to deflect attention away from any experiment that went wrong and give the presenter time to clear up and move on to the next segment.

Which brings us finally to the main part of this story.

It must have been about my 10th show in the SST, and I was presenting ‘Water, Water Everywhere!’ to a full house of primary school classes, which was around 121 pupils and teachers. The show had gone well with all experiments going to plan, and the audience and myself enjoying what was going on. Then we came to the final experiment, the liquid nitrogen explosion. I carefully poured the liquid nitrogen into the bottle and moved over to the barrel with my colleague, who had come down from the back booth to assist. I quickly twisted the bottle cap on, placed it into the barrel and stepped away as my colleague poured the bucket of ping pong balls into the barrel, and then we waited.

It was always a strange feeling as everyone in the theatre (audience and presenters alike) are focused on this barrel in complete silence, all equally unsure if something will happen or not. After about a minute the dreaded high-pitched hissing was heard, so I collected a large heavy duty sheet to place over the barrel in case of an unexpected late explosion, and the boos from the audience rang out!

It was ok though, I could take it the ‘abuse’ as I had a back up plan. There would always be a Hydrogen balloon spare just in case the liquid nitrogen geyser did not work, just so that you would still finish the show with a bang and the audience still leaves happy. It works simply by lighting a candle on the end of a stick, bringing it towards the balloon and bursting it in a large flaming explosion. By the time I finished at GSC I must have done this experiment about 600 – 700 times without fail. Except for this one time.

I still do not know how it happened, but somehow in the process of lighting the candle and bringing it towards the floating balloon the candle extinguished. The candle was still hot though, hot enough to pop the balloon but not enough to explode the hydrogen! So instead of a large explosion with fire and noise, the audience got a small pop like you would see with any  other balloon.

I stood there dumbstruck, and after a few seconds the boos returned! These weren’t the friendly boos of before however, there was a rage behind it at two experiments which promised large explosions producing absolutely nothing, and I crumbled. I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t know what to say. In the end I sheepishly went ‘Errm sorry…………..errrm hope you enjoyed the rest of the show……….errm enjoy your day…..bye……’, and then watched 121 disappointed people file back out of the theatre.

It actually took me a few weeks before I could do another show due to that fear of something going wrong again, however the experience taught me an important lesson in presenting that I will share with you now.

Things go wrong. There is nothing you can do about it. Make sure you have a back up plan, but that could go wrong too. And if it does, embrace it. Steer into the skid. Take ownership of the situation. Make a joke. Slag yourself off. And 99% of the time your audiences love to see things go wrong anyway.

It been about 5 years since that show, and I’ve not heard of anyone else messing up a hydrogen balloon. The below video shows how ‘easy’ it is…….

*A couple years after I joined GSC, a new presenter in the theatre managed to miss the barrel completely during a training session resulting in this explosive device just lying on the floor ready to go off any second. I quickly suggested to everyone in the room that we all get to the back of the theatre as soon as possible…….

 

The Bloodhound Super Sonic Car (SSC)

There was a time when Britain was at the forefront of engineering in the world. During the Victorian era, and with the vast resources of its empire, Britain regularly dared to design and build the biggest, longest, deepest structures in the world. From incredible bridges, such as the Forth Bridge for example, to giant ships such as the doomed Titanic, Britain was never one to shy away for displaying its global dominance through a vast engineering feat. It regularly held giant exhibitions where it could display the latest advances in engineering, one notable example being ‘the Rocket’ steam engine which revolutionised the railway industry.

Of course, over the next hundred years global politics shifted and new super powers arose as the result of two world wars and the break-up of the empire. Today the tallest buildings and longest bridges are now titles held by other nations, though Britain has still contributed over the last 30 years with projects like the Channel Tunnel and the Shard.

Now it may not seem like it so far, but I’ve not written the above out of some patriotic British-ness whilst dreaming of a renewed empire. It is because over the next year there is a project reaching its conclusion that will have the country once again as an out in front leader in world engineering.

The land speed record has been hotly contested for 120 years. On December 18th 1898, a French man named Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat drove his electric powered vehicle at a respectable speed of 39.24mph. He held the record for 1 month, when a Belgian rival named Camille Jenatzy drove the same stretch at 41.42mph. This started a back and forth between the two drivers over the next six months, with each taking and retaking the record until finally Jenatzy reached an unassailable 65.79mph.

Well unassailable for a few years at least that is. New technology was being developed and electric cars were cast aside, only to return recently as our desire for clean emissions from our vehicles grows stronger. What replaced the electric car was steam, where another French man named Léon Serpollet pushed the record up to 75.06mph.

No sooner as steam power cars had arrived that they were usurped by an even greater technology, the internal combustion engine. This revolutionised transport around the world and pushed the land speed record up by 32.51mph over a 3 year period, from 77.08mph in 1902 (American William K. Vanderbilt) to 109.59mph in 1905 (Frenchman Victor Hémery).

The steam engine was to have one final hurrah though in 1906, American Fred Marriott pushing the record up to 127.66mph, which was the first time another vehicle had gone faster than contemporary railways and was still the fasted steam powered engine speed until 2009!

That land speed was to last till 1924, when the first British driver to claim the record, Ernest Eldridge, pushed it up to 145.89mph. By this time record attempts were now under the two-way rule where each driver had to two runs there and back over the same stretch of ground.

l36

British drivers were to dominate over the next decade, pushing the record up to 369.74mph in 1939, a run driven by John Cobb, who would return after the second world war to set an even better 394.196mph in 1947.

The record remained until 1963, where the invention of the jet engine would revolutionise the land speed record. Americans dominated, with Craig Breedlove reaching 407.447mh, and Gary Gabelich reaching 630.478mph by 1970.

There wasn’t to be another attempt untill 1983, when Brit Richard Noble did just enough to claim the record at 634.051mph, and it was another 14 years till the next attempt.

Brit Andy Green broke the record twice in the space of a month in 1997, reaching 714.144mph in September, and 763.035mph in October. This is the record that stands today.

So what does all this info have to do with the next year? Well Andy Green is back for his next attempt, except this time not only are they looking to break the land speed record but try to reach a staggering 1000mph.

The Bloodhound Supersonic Car (SSC) project was launched in October 2008 at the Science Museum in London with two core aims, to smash the world land speed record, and to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers in the UK.

Its taken 9 years to design and build frame of the car, select a propulsion system , find a suitable testing area, and spread the message all around the UK.

_98079872_ee

The car itself is 13.4m long and approx. weighs 7.5 tonnes. The design is a mix of car and aircraft technology, with the front section being a carbon fibre monocoque (like a racing car) and the back portion being a metallic framework and panels (like an aircraft). For propulsion the Bloodhound SSC will use three engines in total: a Eurojet EJ200 jet engine and the Nammo rocket/rocket cluster for thrust, as well as a Jaguar Supercharge V8 engine to drive the rocket oxidiser pump.

It will require 400 litres of fuel and 800 litres of rocket oxidiser for every 1000mph run.

To carry out the world record attempt the team have selected the Hakskeen Pan in South Africa, an area that is 19km long and 5km with little surface stones.

Before the car heads to South Africa the engines need tested, which is what is currently happening in Newquay Air field in Cornwall, and will continue for the next month. Last week they fired up the jet engine for the first time, doing a ‘tied test’ so that its immense propulsion didn’t carry the engine for miles. The plan is to do so ‘slow speed’ testing with the actual car, at speed of ‘just’ 200-300mph, before the car is transported to South Africa in the New Year for the main event. Whats more the general public can buy tickets to view the initial tests and see the sheer potential speed of the car for themselves.

It’s taken 10 years to reach this stage and the Bloodhound SSC is something I highly recommend everyone to keep an eye out for in 2018!

What is the colour of the universe?

What is the colour of the universe?

Well one simple look into the night sky would tell you that the majority of it is black, as there are huge gaps of darkness between each of the stars that we can see. However if we were to look further into space using more powerful telescopes then in these supposed ‘empty’ spaces in the sky we would find thousands of galaxies.

Astronomers have actually performed this experiment several times using the Hubble space telescope, the first of which was an off the cuff experiment in 1995 which pointed the telescope at one tiny part of the sky for ten consecutive days. Many disagreed with this application of the Hubble telescope thinking it was a waste of time and money, but the result was staggering. In a tiny portion of the sky beside the constellation Ursa Major they discovered 3,000 previously unknown galaxies. It was one of the most important photographs ever taken, known as the Hubble Deep Field.

800px-hubbledeepfield-800px
The Hubble Deep Field

They have since replicated the experiment three times more, photographing the southern sky in the Hubble Deep Field South in 1998, the Hubble Ultra Deep Field in 2004, and finally the Hubble eXtreme Deep Field in 2012 (and yes  the ‘x’ is supposed to be upper case!) The detail which these photographs can give us is amazing, looking back 13 billion years to some of the earliest galaxies at the very beginning of the universe.

But since there are all these objects of light in every point in the sky, then why is the sky still dark at night? Surely our night should be as bright as our day in that case.

Well the reason for the sky being dark at night is because of the expansion of our universe, as all these distant galaxies are accelerating away from our planet and as a result the light from each is being ‘red shifted’. That means that as it travels it is being stretched into parts of the electromagnetic spectrum that our eyes cannot pick up as a result of the Doppler effect, namely into ‘infra-red light’ (for more information on the Doppler effect see my previous article here , and more on the electromagnetic spectrum here)

The only reason the Hubble Space Telescope can produce these types of photographs is through detecting the infra-red light and make adjustments to turn it into something visible to our eyes.

But lets get back to the question of the colour of the universe, because every star and galaxy does have an individual colour that tells us information about it. For example, stars of a blue colour tend to be much earlier in their life cycle and extremely hot, whereas red stars tend to be nearing the end of their life cycle and cooling, but also huge in size. It’s unusual because we tend to associate colour and temperature differently, for example our taps are blue for cold and red for hot, but with stars it is the opposite way round.

So if we took every stars colour and then merged them into an average then we would get an overall average colour of the universe, and that is exactly what some researchers did in 2001. They used the 2dF Galaxy Redshift Survey which contained data from over 200,000 galaxies and broke them down into their component wavelengths, giving each a colour. Averaging these colours out gave us an overall turquoise colour of the universe.

400px-cosmic_turquoise
‘Cosmic Turquoise’ the mistaken colour of the universe

This result captured the publics imagination, gaining huge publicity in the process. That was until other researchers went through the calculations, as happens when all scientific results are published, and they disputed the results. What had occurred was that the original researchers had used software online that was calibrated to a slightly redder, warmer light than usual, resulting in a green tint to the original results. They correctly argued that to view the correct colour of the universe you would need to be hypothetically outside the universe looking in, rather than from earth looking outwards, in an area of pure darkness.

Putting these adjustments into their data the original researchers concluded that, rather than a turquoise colour, the colour of the universe was actually more of a beige, something that they renamed ‘cosmic latte’ to give it a more sexy title. It was an embarrassing retraction but an honest mistake, and not quite the vibrant colour they were looking for.

cosmic_latte
‘Cosmic Latte’ the recalculated colour of the universe

However, the implications of this colour are more startling than meets the eye. I mentioned earlier that the colour of stars and galaxies can tell a lot about its age and temperature, and the result of this beige or ‘cosmic latte’ colour actually tells us that there are not many young blue stars left in the universe compared to older redder stars, meaning that the universe may have passed its peak point of activity and is now on the downward slope to burning out.

It is difficult to think of the universe dying out, but we maybe be at the very beginning of the long goodbye. It also tells us how fortunate we are as a human race to be living in an age where we can still look back to the very birth of the universe and find out as much as we can about our existence before very gradually the stars start to disappear over the next few billion years.

Of course the human race may be long gone by that point, which means we should not underestimate the current age that we live in, the age of space exploration. Last week NASA announced the discovery of a solar system with seven earth sized planets in orbit, three of which are in the habitable zone and great candidates for potential life, and next year will see the launch of the James Webb Telescope into a positon beyond the moon which aims to see further into space than ever before. So let us see what we can discover about this incredible universe before it finally fades into darkness.

The future of space exploration

So space is the in thing again. In the past few years we have had several missions that have caught the public’s imagination as well as enhanced our knowledge of celestial bodies in our universe.

We have sent a probe to a distant comet to determine its composition, we have sent a spacecraft past Pluto which has revealed so much about the mysterious ex-planet, and we have sent an orbiter to Jupiter to find out more about the atmosphere of our giant neighbour.

More locally in the UK we sent up our first fully funded astronaut to the International Space Station for 6 months, a mission linked with schools to inspire the next generation of astronomers and space explorers in the next 30 years. But was is planned for the future?

In the next couple of years the main launches into space will be local around the earth. In 2017, NASA will launch its Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), to aid in the discovery of extra solar worlds. The current exoplanet satellite, Kepler, has been responsible for discovering over 3000 new planets but has mainly been focusing on a patch of sky around the Cygnus, Lyra and Hercules area. TESS however will have the capability to view the entire celestial sphere and will target 200,000 stars, with a view to find small rocky worlds which will appear in front of their host star.

Once TESS has found no doubt thousands of candidates for new exoplanets, then its information can be followed up with the next big launch of viewing the universe when the James Webb Telescope is finally launched in 2018. This is the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, and will have the ability to look further into space and therefore further back in time, to discover more about how our universe was formed and to try to view some of the first galaxies formed after the Big Bang. Parts of the telescope were actually developed in Edinburgh, before being assembled in America.

james-webb-space-telescope-1
A comparison between the James Webb Space Telescope and the Hubble Space Telescope

So there will be plenty to view in the near future but what about human exploration. NASA has committed funding to maintain the ISS till 2020, and potentially till 2024, but some of the original parts launched in 1998 are needing constant maintenance and the solar panels are gradually producing less and less electricity to power the station and its experiments. There may be a point in the next 10 years when the station becomes too expensive to maintain, plus its survival depends on the good relationship between Russia and USA which may change in the next few years. So is there a successor in development?

Well yes there is, but it is not from NASA. China is new to the space exploration game, as well as India for that matter, and more and more countries are planning their own missions into space. China has already begun to develop its own space station, the Large Modular Space Station, which will be a quarter the size of the ISS and whose main capsule is due to launch in 2018. It is believed that NASA and ESA would negotiate with China to be able send up astronauts to the station should the ISS no longer be in flight around the Earth.

international_space_station_after_undocking_of_sts-132
The International Space Station

Of course there is one target slightly further afield that NASA has its eye on, the Red Planet. It is hoped that by the 2030s NASA is ready to send a manned mission to Mars, and the start of this gradual process has already begun with the first test of the Orion Spacecraft in 2014. Over the next ten years NASA will push the Orion Spacecraft further and further away from Earth, including loops of the moon, before it is deemed ready to carry astronauts. Then we will spend longer and longer in ‘cislunar space’ ensuring prolonged habitation is up to standard before the long journey to Mars. There is also an ambitious project to redirect an asteroid into orbit around the moon, so astronauts could practice exploration and sample collecting before returning back to Earth. Robotic probes will continue to be sent to Mars, including the Mars 2020 Rover as well as a mission to perform a round trip to Mars and bring back samples to Earth. They will also test entry, decent and landing techniques and study what would be required to live off the land. Only after this decade of study would there finally be scope for sending astronauts to Mars. But are there any plans to live on Mars?

1-yogg5k4frf08fk_88x1eaa
The Mars One project

Eventually from NASA yes, but an independent company might beat them to it. The Mars One project is a self-funded organisation whose main aim is to establish a settlement on Mars by 2032. Thousands applied to become one of their astronauts, and they have now been narrowed down to the final 100. The only issue is if you are selected then it is a one way trip. Before humans are sent there are several missions planned including a rover mission in 2022, a communication satellite put into orbit in 2024, a rover capable of transporting living pods as well as a second communications satellite in 2026, and cargo missions in 2029. The idea is that the rover will construct a base for the astronauts to live in before they arrive in 2032.

It’s an ambitious project, and one a few have claimed is just a publicity stunt, but if it does come to pass then it is one of many space developments to get excited about over the next two decades.

The Science of Christmas

So Christmas is over for another year. Presents have been exchanged, huge mountains of food devoured, and a vast amount of alcohol consumed. Time to put the decorations back in the attic, throw out the tree (if its natural), and start the countdown till next Christmas. 363 days to go!

Christmas is full of traditions and stories, but have you ever wondered about some of the possible science behind each. I’ve been reading ‘The Physics of Christmas’, a book that takes a look at some of the science that could potentially explain Christmas’ well known tales, and I thought I’d share some of the insights from its author that goes a long way to explaining some of the questions you may have wondered about Christmas.

highf02l
The Physics of Christmas, Roger Highfield

First up……

Why does Rudolf have a red nose?

Nearly everyone will have heard the song of Rudolf the Red Nose Reindeer- how one foggy Christmas Santa Claus turned to his shunned reindeer to light the way of the sleigh and gain the respect of his fellow reindeer in the process. But why would a reindeer have a red nose in the first place?

Maybe he had a cold, or maybe whilst Santa is eating cookies and drinking milk Rudolf is having a few drams outside. The reality could be more to do with a reindeer’s physiology, particularly in their nose. They have folded turbinal bones covered with blood rich membranes, which warm the air as the reindeer breathes in and cools the air as it breathes out, thereby reducing the loss of heat and water. However this also creates a welcome environment for bugs, particularly parasites, which could cause infection in the nose leading to swelling and redness. Poor Rudolf.

reindeer

On a side note one common mistake is that all of Santas reindeer are male, whereas actually the opposite is far more likely to be true. Both male and female reindeers have antlers, with the male antlers becoming particularly impressive during breeding season – a time of high testosterone. However, once the season is over the males shed their antlers before new ones start to grow four months later, and this period just so happens to coincide with the festive season.

So this means all of Santas reindeer must be in fact female, or even worse Santa actually castrates his reindeer taking away the testosterone of the males in the first place. Maybe new verses are in order for Rudolfs song…

Why is Santa so fat?

Santa has to carry around millions of presents around the world every year, so you’d think he would get into shape to be able to have the strength to do so. However every depiction of Santa has him with a giant belly that looks like a big bowl of jelly.

5716s
The new image of Santa?

The answer to Santas rotund figure could lie in his DNA. Studies into genetics have revealed that a fault into the ob gene could lead to increased weight. Now the ob gene is the blueprint for a protein called Leptin, which is a hormone that tells the brain how much fat is deposited in the body and which plays an important role in the brains ‘stop eating’ message. It helps the body determine how much fat is converted into energy and how much is stored. So it stands to reason that Santa may have this fault in his ob gene, making him over indulge and eat more than his body actually requires.

There is a good chance that Santa’s obesity means he is also suffering from some form of diabetes.

What exactly was the Bethlehem star?

The Bethlehem star is usually described as a brilliant bright object that pointed the three wise men towards Bethlehem , before settling above the building that contained the new born baby jesus. Now this is a very unusual pattern for celestial objects to travel, so what could the object have been; a comet, a star birth, star death, a conjunction of planets, a hesitation in planetary orbit, a sighting of the then unknown Uranus?

The way to find out is to work out when Jesus was actually born. According to the bible Jesus was born during the reign of Augustus Ceasar in Rome, sometime between 44 B.C and A.D 14, and also the reign of King Herod, who died in the spring of 4 B.C. Herod also killed all the babies in or around Bethlehem who were two years or younger to try and prevent the coming of the King of the Jews, meaning Jesus was born at least two years before Herods death. This puts a rough timescale of between 7B.C and 4B.C for the birth of Jesus.

thestarofbethlehem

Now some very clever astronomers can work out what events would have occurred in the night sky during the time, and see if any coincide with the Bethlehem Star. The window of 7-4 B.C rules out Haleys comet which arrived at 12 B.C, or the conjunction of Venus and Jupiter in 2 B.C. The time period does fit in well with a hesitation in Jupiters orbit however. This is when a planet appears to ‘stop’ in the night sky before carrying on after a few weeks.

This occurs because of the relative position of the planets around the sun. The planets farther out in the solar system orbit around the sun more slowly than Earth. Because of this, Earth catches up and overtakes as it completes its own orbit, making the planets appear to move backwards in the sky for a moment before reverting to their usual progression. Jupiter appears to be stationary at each end of the loop.

So maybe the three wise men saw Jupiter in the weeks leading up to its first stationary point, which happened to coincide with them arriving at Bethlehem where it revealed the barn that baby Jesus was lying in.

The book continues into the science of snow, Christmas shopping, Christmas spirits, and the festive blues, and is a very informative read.

To paraphrase my primary school book talk endings, I really enjoyed it and I would give it an 8 out of 10. The things you take from school eh?

The acoustic effects of Barossa Valley Reservoir

Barossa Reservoir was created between 1899 and 1902 in the Barossa Valley in South Australia. Its most defining feature is a 36 metre curved wall, which was built at a cost of around £170,000 and was hailed as radical innovation at the time, gaining international acclaim in the process.

The wall has a party trick though, which was discovered by accident during its construction. Have a look at the video below to see it.

Due to this phenomenon the dam has gained the nickname ‘the whispering wall’. Legend has it that it was discovered when a group of workers were complaining about their boss who was safely out of earshot on the other side of the valley. However due to the unique parabolic properties of the wall the boss heard every word and the workers promptly lost their jobs. A few say the story has been fabricated to add to the aura of the place, but it’s a fun one nonetheless.

Now the reason you are able to communicate with someone on the other side is because the curve of the dam is a section of a perfect circle, if you were to imagine the wall continuing all the way round. The sound is carried by ‘whispering gallery waves’ which cling on to the surface, allowing a voice to be heard at the exact same volume 140 metres away on the other side of the dam. The hard concrete surface also contributes to the sound travelling unobstructed.

Whispering gallery waves were first discovered in St Pauls Cathedral in London by Lord Raleigh around 1878.* The cathedral also has a unique acoustic trick where if you were to clap, it would echo 4 times in response.

london-st-pauls-cathedral-whispering-gallery
The whispering gallery in the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral

Whispering gallery waves can also be detected in vibrations in the Earth and distant stars, as their shapes are almost spherical, plus exist for light waves. They are also analogies for them existing in gravitational waves at the event horizon of black holes.

There are a huge number of whispering galleries around the world, including the Grand Central Terminal in New York City, the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, the Royal BC Museum in Canada, and in the Louvre in Paris.

Much closer to home in Scotland you can find the effect in the library of Dollar Academy, as well as the Hamilton Mausoleum.

hamilton_mausoleum_2
Hamilton Mausoleum

*Lord Raleigh’s real name was John William Strutt, who also discovered Raleigh scattering, a phenomenon which can be used to explain why the sky is blue!