O'Really?

December 21, 2012

Happy Christmas Lectures (Merry “Chemist-mas” everyone)

Peter Wothers

Peter Wothers lights the blue touchpaper.

If you hate Chemistry [1] it’s probably because your Chemistry teachers weren’t up to scratch. Peter WothersThe Modern Alchemist, is someone who might rekindle your interest in Chemistry through his delivery of the 2012 Christmas Lectures. Wothers will unpick the chemistry of the world around us, looking at Air, Water and Earth, three of the original Greek ‘elements’ that tantalised alchemists for centuries. He’ll also be exploding and burning things too.

The lectures will be broadcast on BBC Four at 8pm on 26, 27 and 28 December and available online afterwards via iPlayer and RiChannel.org (for those outside the UK). Here’s some more blurb from the R.I.:

Lecture 1: Air: The Elixir of Life

Take a deep breath. Inside your lungs is a mixture of highly reactive and incredibly stable gases. Oxygen is the most reactive constituent. When we eat it’s these O₂ molecules that seize electrons from our food to give our bodies the energy to live. Add a third oxygen atom and we make ozone, a gas so reactive that it’s toxic if we breathe it in, but high up in the stratosphere this gas protects us from the sun’s radiation. Add a carbon atom and we produce carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas responsible for warming the planet. We will unravel the puzzle of how and why these compounds of oxygen hold the key to the viability of life on the planet.

Nitrogen, the most common element in air, is an unreactive gas, but a key atom in every cell in every living thing on Earth.  How can we imitate nature to bring this suffocating gas alive?  Even less reactive are the Noble or inert gases. They’re so stable they are the only elements that exist naturally as individual atoms – but what is it about them that make them so inert? And how can we excite these gases enough to join the chemical party? We’ve come a long way from the days when alchemists thought air was a single element.

Lecture 2: Water: The Fountain of Youth

Water is essential to life since every reaction in our bodies takes place in it.  But what makes this fluid so special?  What happens when you add a lighted splint to a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen? Kaboom! But why? What makes this particular rearrangement of atoms to form water so explosive? Can we tap this energy release to provide environmentally friendly solution to our energy problems?   Plants have the ability to reverse this reaction by using the energy from sunlight to release oxygen from water.  We are starting to learn how to do the same.  In this lecture we unpack how energy lies at the heart of chemistry.

We’ll also look at the salts contained in water. Once again we will see the startling difference between a compound and its constituent elements. Take sodium chloride – aka table salt. Sodium is a soft silvery metal that explodes with water; chlorine a deadly poisonous, choking green gas.  Both elements are lethal to us, but after they have met, a dramatic change takes place.  The sodium and chloride ions that form are essential components in our bodies. They help generate the electrical impulses that make our brains and nerves work. We begin to see how chemistry plays a vital role in our lives.

Lecture 3: Earth: The Philosopher’s Stone

The rocks that form planet Earth have always fascinated alchemists. Deep in the bowels of the Earth they thought the metals literally grew in the rocks and that one metal over time matured into another.  They dreamed of replicating these natural processes turning ‘base metals’ into gold. Today the extraction of minerals and metals from rocks has made fortunes, but not quite in the way the alchemists imagined. We now know many rocks are the result of oxygen combining with different elements – each with individual properties. Breaking the strong bonds between oxygen and these elements has always been a challenge. Humankind learned how to release copper in the Bronze Age, and iron in the Iron Age, through smelting. Now we can extract even more exotic materials.

By understanding the properties of materials, such as the silicon present in computers, or the rare earth magnets generating our electricity in wind turbines, we are entering a new era of chemistry in which we can engineer electrons in new configurations for future technologies. We can now put together the unique cluster of protons, neutrons and electrons that form each of the 80 elements in exciting new ways. If the ancient alchemists were alive today they’d be dazzled by the wonders created by the Modern Alchemist.

The lectures this year have been promoted with a fun Christmas Advent calendar at advent.richannel.org, which included a few star turns from the likes of Jerry Hall and many others, describing their favourite elements:

Whatever your favourite element, have yourself a Happy Chemistmas. If you’ve read stuff here at O’Really? in 2012, thanks for visiting and hope to see you again in 2013.

References

  1. Lippincott, W. (1979). Why Students Hate Chemistry Journal of Chemical Education, 56 (1) DOI: 10.1021/ed056p1

June 15, 2012

Alan Turing Centenary Conference, 22nd-25th June 2012

Alan Turing by Michael Dales

The Alan Turing statue at Bletchley Park. Creative commons licensed picture via Michael Dales on Flickr

Next weekend, a bunch of very distinguished computer scientists will rock up at the magnificent Manchester Town Hall for the Turing Centenary Conference in order to analyse the development of Computer ScienceArtificial Intelligence and Alan Turing’s legacy [1].

There’s an impressive and stellar speaker line-up including:

Tickets are not cheap at £450 for four days, but you can sign up for free public lectures by Jack Copeland on Turing: Pioneer of the Information Age and Roger Penrose on the problem of modelling a mathematical mind. Alternatively, if you can lend some time, the conference organisers are looking for volunteers to help out in return for a free conference pass. Contact Vicki Chamberlin for details if you’re interested.

References

  1. Chouard, T. (2012). Turing at 100: Legacy of a universal mind Nature, 482 (7386), 455-455 DOI: 10.1038/482455a see also nature.com/turing

June 1, 2012

An Open Letter to the Royal Society: Please employ a wikipedian in residence

Dear Professor Nurse

Fellows of the Wiki Society?

To improve public engagement with Science and Scientists, the Royal Society should employ a wikipedian in residence. Here’s why:

The Royal Society is a National Academy of Science which represents some of the world’s leading scientists. The stated aim of the society is to:

“recognise, promote, and support excellence in science and to encourage the development and use of science for the benefit of humanity.”

Despite the elitist nature of many scientific societies, a significant part of what the Royal Society does is engage with members of the general public of all ages through a wide range of events. The annual Summer Science exhibition, Royal Society Blogs, Policy Centre and Royal Society television channel are just a few examples from amongst many more.

Many Fellows are of interest to the general public and already have extensive biographies in wikipedia which are up to date, well-written, well-referenced and conform to the wikipedia guidelines for the biographies of living persons. Wikipedia biographies often appear top of the list of google search result for a scientists name, for example see:

However, many other scientists do not have pages about them on wikipedia. Unfortunately, alternative sources of information such as academic homepages are often out of date and not particularly engaging. Most scientists are too busy doing Science to spend time updating their home pages, as neatly illustrated by cartoonist Jorge Cham. At the time of writing, less than half of the notable and distinguished Fellows elected in 2012 have biographies on wikipedia, see below of details.

Putting scientific information into wikipedia isn’t as crazy as it sounds. Alex Bateman at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute [1], PLoS Computational Biology [2] and many others [3] have already made considerable progress in improving the scientific content of wikipedia. This information is immediately accessible to a huge global audience.

Wikipedia is arguably one of the greatest ever opportunities for public engagement in Science. By employing a wikipedian in residence, the Royal Society could improve and influence the scientific content of wikipedia, while engaging even more with the general public around the world, who are often just as interested in the scientists as the science itself. As the current president of the society I hope you will consider this proposal.

Yours Sincerely

Dr. Duncan Hull
University of Manchester, UK

(this letter has also been sent by email)

References

  1. Daub, J., Gardner, P., Tate, J., Ramskold, D., Manske, M., Scott, W., Weinberg, Z., Griffiths-Jones, S., & Bateman, A. (2008). The RNA WikiProject: Community annotation of RNA families RNA, 14 (12), 2462-2464 DOI: 10.1261/rna.1200508
  2. Wodak, S., Mietchen, D., Collings, A., Russell, R., & Bourne, P. (2012). Topic Pages: PLoS Computational Biology Meets Wikipedia PLoS Computational Biology, 8 (3) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1002446
  3. Xiao, L., & Askin, N. (2012). Wikipedia for Academic Publishing: Advantages and Challenges. Online Information Review, 36(3), 2. Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Appendix: Fellows of the Wiki Society

As of June 2012, only 21 out of the 52 of the Royal Society Fellows elected in 2012 have a biographical page on wikipedia. Where biographies currently exist, they are linked to below

Of course, 2012 is just the tip of the iceberg, there are also the Fellows elected in 20112010 and so on back 350 years to 1660.

April 30, 2010

Daniel Cohen on The Social Life of Digital Libraries

Day 106 - I am a librarian by cindiann, on FlickrDaniel Cohen is giving a talk in Cambridge today on The Social Life of Digital Libraries, abstract below:

The digitization of libraries had a clear initial goal: to permit anyone to read the contents of collections anywhere and anytime. But universal access is only the beginning of what may happen to libraries and researchers in the digital age. Because machines as well as humans have access to the same online collections, a complex web of interactions is emerging. Digital libraries are now engaging in online relationships with other libraries, with scholars, and with software, often without the knowledge of those who maintain the libraries, and in unexpected ways. These digital relationships open new avenues for discovery, analysis, and collaboration.

Daniel J. Cohen is an Associate Professor at George Mason University and has been involved in the development of the Zotero extension for the Firefox browser that enables users to manage bibliographic data while doing online research. Zotero [1] is one of many new tools [2] that are attempting to add a social dimension to scholarly information on the Web, so this should be an interesting talk.

If you’d like to come, the talk starts at 6pm in Clare College, Cambridge and you need to RSVP by email via the talks.cam.ac.uk page

References

  1. Cohen, D.J. (2008). Creating scholarly tools and resources for the digital ecosystem: Building connections in the Zotero project. First Monday 13 (8)
  2. Hull, D., Pettifer, S., & Kell, D. (2008). Defrosting the Digital Library: Bibliographic Tools for the Next Generation Web PLoS Computational Biology, 4 (10) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1000204

April 28, 2010

Philip Campbell on Science Facts and Frictions

Philip Campbell: Will you pay for good online stuff, Dammit? (Libraries do, thankfully)As part of the Gates Distinguished Lecture Series editor Philip Campbell is giving a public lecture at 6.30pm tonight titled Science – facts and frictions at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. The abstract and text below is reproduced from talks.cam.ac.uk:

Climategate’, MMR vaccine, GM crops, stem cells – these are examples of public debates in which science and scientists have come under attack. And yet the processes of science were no different in kind from those in calmer territories, such as cancer research, where the public not only trusts researchers but directly donates half a billion pounds every year in their support. Why are there such contrasts? And what can scientists and others do in response to such attacks? The talk will offer some suggestions.

As Editor-in-Chief of Nature, Philip Campbell heads a team of about 90 editorial staff around the world. Dr. Campbell takes direct editorial responsibility for the content of Nature editorials, writing some of them. He is the seventh [1] Editor-in-Chief since the journal was launched in 1869.

Dr. Campbell’s role as Editor-in-Chief of Nature publications (of which there are many editorially independent journals and several websites) is to ensure that the quality and integrity appropriate to the Nature name are maintained, and that appropriate individuals are appointed as chief editors. He sits on the executive board of Nature’s parent company, Nature Publishing Group.

According to the accompanying press release from the University, Campbell:

“is particularly interested in groups of scientists who regularly produce blogs in order to help the public and journalists gain access to their perspectives on scientific developments and controversies.”

So, if you’re in or near Cambridge tonight, this talk is open the public and looks like it will be enlightening.

[Update, some interesting things mentioned in this talk in no particular order:

Refererences

  1. Philip Campbell (1995). Postscript from a new hand Nature, 378 (6558), 649-649 DOI: 10.1038/378649b0
  2. Daniel Sarewitz (2004). How science makes environmental controversies worse Environmental Science & Policy, 7 (5), 385-403 DOI: 10.1016/j.envsci.2004.06.001

March 16, 2010

DNA, Diversity and You at Cambridge Science Festival

Sequence BraceletsAs part of Cambridge Science festival last weekend, I joined a group of about 40 volunteers from The Sanger and EBI at an event “DNA, diversity and you”. This was a series of education and outreach events designed to explore how differences in your genetic code make you different from other individuals, and what makes the humans different from other living things –  with a bit of computational biology thrown in for good measure.  Here are some notes on a selection of the activities, in case you ever find yourself trying to explain biology, computer science or bioinformatics to anyone aged 4-18 and beyond. These resources are all tried, tested and fun to work with, for students and teachers alike:

  1. DNA origami create your own origami DNA molecule, and hands on way of learning abou tthe double helix structure of DNA
  2. DNA sequence bracelets (see picture right). Thread coloured beads according to sequence sections from a range of organisms including trout, chimpanzee, butterfly, a flesh-eating microbe and rotting corpse flower.
  3. Yummy gummy DNA (under 5’s) build your own DNA helix out of sweets and cocktail sticks. Then scoff it all afterwards.
  4. What’s my name in DNA? find out what your name is in DNA, and what the corresponding (hypothetical) protein is using software from deCODE.
  5. Function Finders translate DNA into a sequence of amino acids using wooden translator blocks, then find out which organism the amino acid sequence is from.
  6. Genome sizes (with seatbelts) Rank organisms (inc. human, zebrafish, mosquito, sugar cane and yeast) and find out if they are in the right order. Results are often not what you would expect.
  7. Play your genes right. A card-based guessing game which compares the number of genes in the human genome with the number of genes from a range of different organisms include the flu virus, E. coli bacteria, armadillo, rice plant and others.
  8. Genome Jigsaws for illustrating the process of finishing supposedly “finished” genomes, by putting together a square sequence jigsaw following base pairing rules to end up with a complete finished square.
  9. DNA Time Team examines of aspects ancestry and evolution. The activity encourages people to work out the sequence of a common ancestor by filling in the gaps on a simple evolutionary tree.
  10. Spot the difference with proteins. Comparing Heat Shock Protein (HSP) in human and other organisms to illustrate how different regions of the protein vary between different organisms and how this affects function.
  11. Ready, steady sort: a sorting network that demonstrates one technique that computers use to sort through large amounts of information like sequence data. This comes straight from Computer Science Unplugged by Tim Bell, Mike Fellows and Ian Witten. This activity can be done either as a smaller board game, or as a larger floor game. Either way, it’s a lot of fun, especially if you time people for an added competitive element (see video below)

There were a whole bunch of new activities at the festival this year, maybe these will appear on the your genome website in the future. Anyway, it was great fun to get involved, there is nothing quite like the challenge of explaining parallel computing to young kids, teenagers and their parents – actually much easier than you’d think if you’ve got access to great teaching materials.

Thanks to Francesca Gale and Louisa Wright for all the hard work that went into organising this fun and successful event.

March 8, 2010

Cambridge Science Festival, 8th-21st March 2010

Cambridge Science Festival, 8-21 March 2010Madder than the Mad March Hare, more entertaining and surreal than Alice down-a-rabbit-hole in Wonderland: today marks the start of this years Cambridge Science festival:

“Delve into the diversity of science at the Cambridge Science Festival 2010! All aspects of science, technology, engineering and mathematics will be available to visitors of all ages at more than 150 mostly free events over two weeks. This year is the International Year of Biodiversity and the Festival is celebrating this by inviting you to learn more about the colourful creatures on the land and beneath the waves at the many events on offer in University departments and museums.

This year, a Schools Zone has been added into the programme of events, where pupils from local schools will be showcasing their work with interactive exhibits at the University Centre on the 20th March.

Also look out for scientists from the BBSRC in the Grafton Centre during the Festival, who will be on hand to answer your tricky science questions. Watch out for video and audio coverage before and during the Festival on the Guardian website.”

A team of scientists and engineers from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and The EBI will be participating, on Saturday 13th March with a session on DNA, diversity and you and also tackling the thorny issue of Who Owns Science? on Friday 19th March. So if you’re in or near Cambridge over the next couple of weeks, come and say hello, and check out the  details in the full programme.

September 29, 2008

BBSRC UK Roadshow, Autumn 2008

bend in the roadThe Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is on the road this autumn in London, Manchester, Bristol, Glasgow and Cambridge. Potential applicants, grant holders and any other interested parties are strongly urged to attend and learn about BBSRC’s plans for the future including new procedures and new Committee structures. The road shows will also provide an opportunity to meet the new members of the BBSRC Senior Management team.

From an original email sent by Alf Game, Deputy Director of Science and Technology Group. See BBSRC Roadshows.

The BBSRC has revised its future strategic priorities and the way in which they will be delivered through responsive mode peer review and is holding a series of road shows “Enabling the Delivery of Excellence with Impact” at various locations across the UK. (more…)

The Rubric Theme. Blog at WordPress.com.

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