Digging up the past…

April 20, 2011 at 2:42 pm | Posted in Do | Leave a comment
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I snuck out of the office for a morning to visit the site of the UKCMRI – the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation – a 90,000 square foot biomedical research centre in Brill Place, Camden.

Although it’s been used as a car park for many years, the land was previously Somers Town Good Yard – a large distribution centre for perishable goods such as milk and fish.

The yard was opened in 1887 on land purchased by the Midland Railway Company who had constructed St Pancras station – a goods yard was always in their plans but they had run out of space. The company bought extra land which resulted in the compulsory purchase and demolition of around 4,000 homes.

Today, the British Library stands on the southern part of the good yard; the northern part is where the UKCMRI is to be built. But before building can begin, the area is being excavated to learn more about the goods yard and the people that lived and worked in the area. Museum of London archaeologists are running tours of the excavation site for the general public interested in the history, and have been showing what they’ve found.

I went along to have a look and this video below is the result.

Larger versions of the images and descriptions can be found on the LabNews flickr page: www.flickr.com/laboratorynews

Tours are running at 9am, 10.30am, 1pm and 2.30pm until 21st April. More information on the UKCMRI can be found at www.ukcmri.ac.uk

Dancing queen…

April 19, 2011 at 9:03 am | Posted in Science Lite | Leave a comment
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Dancing QueenWedding season is fast approaching, and the Science Lite team are begrudgingly dusting off our glad-rags and dancing shoes ready to embarrass ourselves on the dreaded dance floor.

While we know we’ll never have the style and skill of Fred Astaire or the grace of this year’s Strictly Come Dancing winner Kara Tointon – even after the champagne toast and several glasses of wine – we’re keeping our fingers firmly crossed that we won’t resemble Ann Widdecombe being dragged about aimlessly.

But even if we are completely out of time and don’t know any of the moves to Saturday Night, The Ketchup Song or The Macarena – yes, we’re cool, we’re hip…ahem – we’re quite pleased to report we have an excuse for our pitiful performance: GABA.

You’ve heard the expression “they have two left feet”, but in actual fact whether a person can dance or not has nothing to do with their feet – it’s all in their head, more specifically the brain. A chemical messenger called GABA – or gamma-aminobutyric acid – is important for the plasticity of the motor cortex, the part of the brain involved in planning, control and execution of voluntary movements, including dancing.

Researchers from the University of Oxford discovered that people who were fast to learn a simple sequence of finger motions showed large changes of GABA in the brain following electrical stimulation.

The researchers took 12 healthy young adults and measured GABA levels in the brain using magnetic resonance spectroscopy. They were subjected to a low-level electric current – known to reduce GABA within the motor cortex – delivered through their scalps in a process called anodal transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS). From this, researchers worked out their baseline GABA levels and GABA responsiveness.

A few days later, researchers asked participants to learn a sequence of finger motions – ten taps of the fingers of one hand on a pad of buttons – while their brains were scanned by fMRI. It turned out that those who were more GABA responsive were quicker to learn the task and showed greater activation in the motor cortex while learning. This was because their levels of GABA – which acts as an inhibitor, preventing neurons from linking to each other – reduced rapidly allowing cells to create new brain circuitry and therefore learn the sequence.

Most participants were able to learn the sequence, but the Science Lite team feel sorry for the one who was unable to – his GABA levels remained high and slowed down the brain’s ability to learn.

But how does this relate to whether you’re good with the Cha-Cha-Cha or just look like you’re doing the Birdy Song? Well, apparently learning a sequence of finger taps is akin to the coordination needed to learn dance moves, or to learn how to play the piano.

We’re not sure if this research would have made any difference to Craig Revill-Horwood’s scathing comments after each of Ann Widdecombe’s performances – not that she needed any help with her witty comebacks.

So whether you’ve got two left feet or are embarrassed by your ‘Dad dancing’ friends and family, at least you can tell them you know it’s not their fault – it’s probably down to GABA.

Stuck for something to do?

April 14, 2011 at 10:00 am | Posted in Do | Leave a comment
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If you’re stuck for something to do, why not visit The Science Museum. They’ve got a jam-packed schedule of exhibits to see including:

James Watt and Our World: visit Watt’s attic workshop for a change to see previously unseen objects and learn about the engineer’s working life, ingenuity and character.

10 Climate Stories: a showcase of artwork from established and emerging artists, part of the museum’s three-year Climate Changing programme.

The Time Eating Clock – a story on invention: The celebrated time-eating Chronophage clock, designed by Dr John Taylor OBE, will be displayed alongside an original Harrison clock in an installation designed to give insight into the mind of one of today’s most creative and successful inventors.

More information at www.sciencemuseum.org.uk

It’s not rocket science

April 13, 2011 at 11:56 am | Posted in Origin of phrases | Leave a comment
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Out of this world

Its not rocket science

We’ve all heard it, and probably said it, thousands of times: “It’s not rocket science!” But where did this clichéd phrase come from?

The phrase means “whatever the subject or problem is, it’s not as hard to understand or difficult as rocket science”.  However, trying to find the origins of the phrase is almost as hard as rocket science itself – it seems there is no consensus on where the overused expression came from.

The best answer I found came from www.phrases.org.uk. The phrase was first coined in the 1950s by America, who was the first country to adopt a sustained programme for the development of ‘rocket science’.

The first ‘rocket scientists’ weren’t actually American – they were German military technologists. These rocket scientists – led by Werner von Braun – were responsible for developing the V2 rockets which destroyed London during the Blitz. Many were captured in 1945 and transported to the US, and the USSR and UK.

However, in article on the Providence Journal website – written by Diane K Fisher – NASA’s Space Place says there’s no such thing as rocket science or rocket scientists. Fisher – who was writing under contract with NASA – said engineers design, test and launch rockets not scientists. However, they have to work with scientists to produce a rocket that meets their needs – so they also need to know a lot of science.

Another blog said the term ‘rocket science’ was coined by John F Kennedy when he was ploughing the nation’s taxes into NASA as the space race began heating up.

Whether rocket science and rocket scientists exist doesn’t matter – by 1950 it was generally accepted that developing space craft was hard and outside the intellectual capabilities of the ‘average Joe’.

However the earliest use of the phrase was in the 1980s – and to describe football!

“Coaching football is not rocket science and it’s not brain surgery. It’s a game, nothing more.”
Pennsylvania newspaper The Daily Intelligencer, December 1985

It’s all particle play

April 12, 2011 at 9:55 am | Posted in Competition, Do | 1 Comment
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The Particle ZooHere at Laboratory News we try to include something for everyone – last month it was the giant microbes for the microbiologist – this month it’s the turn of the physicists…

The lovely people at The Particle Zoo have sent us three subatomic particle plushes – a photon, gluon and a tachyon! A welcome addition to brighten up any desk

Find out more about The Particle Zoo at www.particlezoo.net – from electrons to quarks to neutrinos – event the elusive Higgs boson – they have it all!

To win a one of these playful particles just send your name, address and laboratory/institution to phil.prime@laboratorynews.co.uk by 27th April. Good luck!

Wonders of the Universe – the perfect accompaniment

April 7, 2011 at 12:48 pm | Posted in Competition, Read | 1 Comment
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Wonders of the UniverseRarely are we excited at the arrival of the mail here in the office, yet we barely managed to contain whoops of joy when a recent package landed on our desks for  we knew what was inside – Wonders of the Universe by our favourite floppy haired scientist. The series had – as expected – blown us away and the book was no-less amazing.

Fresh from his win at the Royal Television Awards, Professor Brian Cox show he also has what it takes in print as – along with head of the BBC science department Andrew Cohen – he takes us on a journey of discovery through time and space.

The books is split into four chapters – one for each of the four episodes and explains the fundamental science along with details of experiments and stunning imagery from telescopes, plus some of that seen on the show. A perfect accompaniment to another amazing series.

Wonders of the Universe by Professor Brian Cox and Andrew Cohen, Collins, £20

To win a copy of Wonders of the Universe, just send your name, address and laboratory/institution to phil.prime@laboratorynews.co.uk by 27th April. Good luck!

Money makes the world go round…

April 5, 2011 at 8:44 am | Posted in Editorial Comment | Leave a comment
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Money – goes the saying – makes the world go round. Well, much as anyone with even a passing acquaintance with gravity and Newton’s famous laws may take umbrage at this, the fact remains that for R&D this trite statement is largely inescapable.

Science is expensive – if there is no financial backing for any given piece of research then it just can’t happen. Equipment, staff, consumables, premises – just the very tip of an expenses iceberg that extends very deeply indeed. And as technologies and capabilities grow so do the costs.

How the UK scientific community approaches this and attempts to make its scientific ambition tally with its financial reality will be the major factor in our ability to perform at a global level.

In his recent budget George Osbourne announced that the Government will put its hand in its pocket and pump an extra £100m of capital spending into science and engineering. The cash will go to projects deemed priorities by the Science and Engineering Research Councils – £90m will be split between the national research campuses at Daresbury, Norwich and Cambridge (£80m) and the Isis neutron source at Harwell (£10m). £10m will go to fund new technologies used in spacecraft systems, along with some changes to the Outer Space Act which it is hoped will make the UK space sector more competitive.

Broad smiles, pats on back, and no doubt some expensive celebratory lunches in the halls of Westminster – but is it really enough? Of course it’ll help, £100m after all is not to be sniffed at, and yes it is a relief to see that at the moment the infamous ‘ring fencing’ of the science budget holds firm – but really, for the price of two footballers can the nation truly rest easy in the knowledge that we are doing all we can for science?

After all, this recent bump in spending comes hot on the heels of a £1.4bn cut in science spending at the end of last year. Labs country-wide are struggling to make ends meet, and this extra money will prove insignificant – indeed inaccessible – for the majority of them.

So what then, is to be done? Well the fact is we as a nation have less money to spend. And while it is true that a pound spent on R&D, even in a time of economic stagnation (in fact, especially in a time of economic stagnation) is potentially at least two pounds earned down the line – governments can’t be relied upon to splash the cash. There are of course other routes of funding – charity, private sector science companies etc – but it is venture capitalists, a group now firmly entrenched in the vocabulary of all those with ambitions of a start-up, that could well boom as government spending dwindles.

We managed to track one of these financial alchemists down and on p31 we give you the insider info on what it is they seek from scientists seeking investment. Of course it is not the answer for many projects – but for work that has some commercial ambition, the VC’s can be a helping hand indeed.

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