Inspiring the next generation

February 28, 2011 at 9:28 am | Posted in Editorial Comment | Leave a comment

A recent study from the Royal Society suggests that not enough teens are taking science A-levels, while a government report suggests GCSE science classes are too prescriptive and focus on teaching teens how to pass exams rather than on creative learning: how do we get kids interested in science?

The key is to start young – I think at primary school – and make it accessible to them. A bottle of fizzy pop and some Mentos and you’ve got an exploding rocket and a bunch of hooked kids! Or how about my mum’s favourite – cornflour and water? You get a non-Newtonian fluid which is hard when you keep moving it but makes a huge gungey mess when you stop playing with it!

A quick search on YouTube delivers a huge array of really quick, simple and easy-to-understand experiments that could be done with a class full of primary school kids – health and safety permitting of course.

Primary school seems like a distant memory now, but I’m sure we used to have fun making lots of cool stuff and playing with iron filings! At secondary school it got even more exciting – we got to play with fire and proper chemicals, but I don’t know what health and safety permits any more, and if schools’ budgets allow them to do lots of practical experiments.

I’d always enjoyed science, and was generally pretty inquisitive, but my love of science – in particular chemistry – was really ignited by my year 9 chemistry teacher. She was great and I was lucky enough to have her as my teacher right through to A-level, but it seems like specialists like her are in demand. The UK appears to have a  lack of science teachers – but its a vicious circle – those who retire need to be replaced by a new generation, but it seem the new generation are turned off by science.

So we need to get them involved and inspired in some way. What better way than to show them science in action at one of the many science festivals or shows around the country. National Science and Engineering Week is fast approaching and what better way to show a young child that science is cool than with a chemistry show full of flashes, bangs, wallops and  colours?

Or take them along to the Big Bang event at the ExCell where they’ll get to see experiments from shows such as Bang goes the Theory, Brainiac, and Wallace and Gromit’s World of Invention.

Show them that science is cool and they might be inspired to take science to a whole new level.


What does yours mean?

February 24, 2011 at 10:41 am | Posted in Editorial Comment | 1 Comment
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Tattoos are no longer restricted to names, dates and simple outlines – they’ve become complicated, colourful and even scientific

Credit Flickr/steven and darusha

Being a scientist is more than being identified by your lab coat; some scientists connect with their work so much that they have it tattooed on their body.

I’d never really thought about science-based tattoos until I stumbled across Carl Zimmer’s Science Tattoo Emporium on the Discover website. There are some truly amazing images of chemicals, atoms, symbols and animals – especially this snake.

It got me thinking – what made these scientists choose to have these images inked on their bodies for the rest of their lives?

For the anonymous computer programmer and amateur herpetologist – that’s a zoologist specialising in reptiles, amphibians, crocodilians and turtles – it sounds like she had a special bond with Boa Constrictor, Henry. Apparently each scale was drawn individually – it took 20 hours over 14 months to complete – hardly surprising for such a stunning piece of work.

For others it a labour of love – and pain. One guy had fulvic acid inked on his skin – a rather complex molecule he studied for his graduate work. “I figured I might as well get it etched into my skin so I can look at it and say ‘Well, at least it hurt less than grad school’,” he said. I guess that’s as good a reason as any!

That was the most complicated molecule I saw – others had caffeine, or simply a benzene ring – but some of the art featured in the Emporium is nothing less than a masterpiece. If Henry took 20 hours, you know other scientists were in the chair for just as long; the intricate detail required for Darwin’s finches or the stingray must have given them a numb bum!

Credit Flickr/craigfinlay

Picking a tattoo is hard – you want something that will look good; you’re not going to regret in a few years; and more-often-than-not, an image that means something. For some of the scientists in the Emporium, it seems they picked an image that meant something to them but not anyone else! Well maybe a select group of other scientists.

There’s an arm with one of Tesla’s patent images inked on it, another with a sine wave and mathematical equations; and someone had a 1950s nitrogen cycle tattooed right across their back. At least they’re original.

It puts my tattoo – a Celtic love knot – to shame. It’s pretty enough, but it doesn’t really mean anything to me nor is it very original. From what I remember I trawled a few tattoo sites and settled on that. Better get my thinking cap on for next time round…

Zimmer is turning his Science Tattoo Emporium into a book – Science Ink – due out in October. I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy…

What would you’re scientific tattoo be? Already got one? Send us an image and we’ll post a selection of the best in another post.

Dr Chuckles shames our cynic

February 21, 2011 at 12:19 pm | Posted in Science Lite | Leave a comment
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Dr Chuckles shames our cynicCynicism is no stranger to us here on the Science light desk. Indeed it has become a close and valued ally. A comforting mental overcoat, arming us for the oh-so-smug task of gently mocking some entirely innocent and well meaning research.

The thing about cynicism is that it can be seductive. It quickly becomes easier to dismiss out of hand some prima facie peculiar research rather than engage fully with its implications. However – like many things that have an air of seductiveness – it does tend to leave its mark. If not kept in check it can warp your outlook to the point where thought processes are bent double – gollam-esque – leaving you desperately hunting for jeer-worthy flaws in all that you survey.

It is a trap that we very nearly fell into once again this month. Forgivable – almost – given the piece of research that awoke our lightly sleeping inner cynic was entitled: The effect of clowning on pregnancy rates after in vitro fertilisation and embryo transfer.

That’s right – clowning. Clowning – an occupation otherwise reserved for children’s birthday parties, big tops and horror films – is rapidly infiltrating the ranks of medicine. And the real prod in the side of our cynic came in the form of the following sentence:  Medical clowning as an adjunct to IVF-ET may have a beneficial effect on pregnancy rates and deserves further investigation.

Medical clowning? Cue an explosion of cartoon-like eyes on stalks as the realisation hit the science lite desk that the discipline of japing around in a hospital is so established that it is actually called medical clowning. What future circus based medical therapies await we thought? Lion tamer therapy for the depressed? Juggling for diabetics? Will GP’s soon be prescribing a strict regimen of acrobatics to eczema sufferers?

However, it was at the point of actually reading the study – the downfall of many a wry attack on a piece of research – where we had to gently coax the cynic back into the dark cave from whence it came.

The study, led by Dr Shevach Friedler of the Infertility and IVF unit at Assaf Harofeh Medical Center, in Israel, tracked 219 women undergoing IVF treatment and, over a period of a year, treated half of them to a medical clown’s 15-minute routine of jokes, magic tricks and other clowning immediately after their embryos were implanted.

Friedler – who is also trained in movement and mime – reports that 36.4% of women exposed to clowning immediately after embryo transfer became pregnant, while only 20.2% of the controls became pregnant. The reason for this, claims Friedler, was probably because the clowning reduced the stress of what for many was many years of gruelling IVF treatments.

Hmmm – the response of our inner cynic now looked shamefully excessive. And on further investigation it seems that medical clowning has been used successfully in many clinical situations – and has been doing so in every state in Australia, the USA, Canada, Israel and all over Europe.

So, to the medical clowns of the world we salute you. Any initial instinct to ridicule clearly came from a rapidly germinating seed of jealousy – after all what better way to spend your day than clowning around whilst helping those in need.

The future of healthcare – is it in the app?

February 18, 2011 at 1:44 pm | Posted in Editorial Comment | Leave a comment
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The future of healthcare – is it in the app?

In essence, the apps allow you to collect real time data and save it to a personal online account or upload it to your doctor’s surgery

I remember my first mobile phone – it was a Motorola, a huge brick that simply made phone calls and sent text messages. My next phone had the ability to enter a customised ringtone by pressing the keys in sequence, yielding the tune when played back– I thought it was amazing.

Now I’ve got a jazzy smartphone that not only makes calls, sends text messages and lets me use real songs as ringtones but connects to the internet, receives emails, takes pictures and allows me to download apps aimed at making my life that little bit easier and healthier. Hasn’t the mobile phone become wonderful?

Not only has mobile internet changed the way we interact with people through social media like Twitter and Facebook, but the iPhone in particular looks set to revolutionise healthcare. Companies are developing apps to monitor blood pressure and diabetes, all through your phone. In essence, the apps allow you to collect real time data and save it to a personal online account or upload it to your doctor’s surgery.

While it sounds very convenient, I’m wondering just how easy it is to use and what the cost implications are. First of all you have to download the app – the price of these can vary considerably as it is, and if you want the most reliable, you’ll have to fork out for the best app.

And what about the extras? For the Withings Blood Pressure Monitor, you’ll have to part with 81 of your hard-earned pounds for the device – which apparently resembles the cuff the doctor uses to take your blood pressure – plus another £62 if you want the iHealth Blood Pressure iPod Dock.

It sounds easy enough to use – attach the device to your iPhone and take your blood pressure. Your information is recorded in an online account which you can access via your phone, iPod Touch or iPad. The dock allows you to monitor and track your blood pressure via any of these devices too.

But that’s over £140. In the UK, a simple trip to the doctors will tell you if you need to keep an eye on blood pressure and they’ll even throw in the equipment for you to do so – so this is just an unnecessary expense.

Perhaps in America – where the app has been developed and where free healthcare is unavailable – the set up could prove useful for those worried about their blood pressure, but it can’t really replace a visit to the doctor’s surgery, nor the invaluable advice they would offer.

I also stumbled across a potentially useful app from WellDoc – a US-based health software company – the DiabetesManager. The app – designed for patients and healthcare professionals dealing with type 2 diabetes – is currently being tested in several pilot studies.

It collects real time data on blood sugar levels – although how it does this is unclear – and analyses it for trends. If it spots, for example, a low blood sugar trend, a built-in program offers advice on how to correct it and other lifestyle tips to remind users how to manage the disease in a consistent way.

Both data and analysis can be sent to healthcare providers via the phone/internet allowing the patient’s doctors to track them remotely and respond without needing appointments. The direct link to the doctor could prove useful – if not lifesaving in some cases – and I can see an app like this being quite popular.

So the humble mobile phone is no longer just a tool to call and text people; it is now a device we use to email and surf the internet. It seems the app – a relatively recent development – has graduated from fun games and communication tools to applications capable of monitoring and improving our health. It might even become a lifesaver.

Uncaged Monkeys

February 16, 2011 at 12:16 pm | Posted in Watch | Leave a comment
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Book your tickets for the Uncaged Monkeys tour – “The first ever national science tour celebrating the universe and many of the wonders that lie within it.”

Robin Ince, co-presenter of BBC Radio 4s Infinite Monkey Cage will be introducing great minds of science including Dr Ben Goldacre, author of Bad Science and slayer of bamboozlers; Simon Singh, author of the best-selling and award winning Fermats Last Theorem, as well as Big Bang and Trick Or Treatment and his co-presenter Professor Brian Cox.  Rumours are Chris Addison might be joining them too…

More information can be found on

Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution

February 14, 2011 at 12:07 pm | Posted in Competition, Read | 1 Comment
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Life AscendingIt seems that nothing can exist now without someone – often channel 4 – treating us to a rundown of the ‘top 10’ of that thing. Often bolstered by the dubious memories of a selection of barely recognisable talking heads, the format is growing increasingly tired. So it was with some surprise we learnt that Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution had been shortlisted for the Royal Society Prize for Science Books back in 2010. But our cynicism was entirely misjudged – the book is an absolute joy. A biochemist by trade, Dr Nick Lane employs a clarity of thought and adroitness of expression that allows the reader to easily navigate his enviable breadth of knowledge. A breadth of knowledge that never scrimps on detail whilst delivering logic and inspiration in equal measure. The very definition of a ‘must read’ for anyone that has ever marvelled at the complexity of life – something the Royal Society clearly agreed with when they awarded Lane the prize at the end of 2010.

Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution by Dr Nick Lane. Published by Profile Books LTD, £9.99.

To win a copy of Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution, just send your name, address and laboratory/institution to by 23rd February 2011. Good luck!

Brighton Science Festival

February 10, 2011 at 12:11 pm | Posted in Do | Leave a comment
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Brighton Science Festival kicks off on February 13th and what better excuse do you need to have a trip to the sea side? From the Bright Sparks family fun day to philosophy in pubs and open labs to zombie science – there really is something for everyone. And you could even sneak in some Brighton rock too.

13th February – 6th March
Tickets available at

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