Posted tagged ‘nano’

Here come the spiders: the importance of imagery

May 14, 2010

Imagery is a hugely important aspect of science communication. This is especially true when the language used to describe a scientific breakthrough is largely unfamiliar to a lay audience.

We remember images, generally, far better than we do words. Anyone can describe a scene from their favourite novel, but very few will remember the words. The image is what lasts.

Yesterday, the Daily Mail ran a story entitled “Meet the nano-spiders: The DNA robots that could one day be walking through your body”. Now, to me, the combined imagery of: (a) spiders, (b) robots, and (c) things inside my body equals a bad thing. (more…)

10minus9 interview: Hilary Sutcliffe (nano and me)

May 4, 2010


A few months ago I came across the nano and me website, designed to provide an impartial source of information for lay audiences on all things nano.

The site was set up as part of a pilot scheme, and with initial funding having run out it’s now under threat. I’ve been thinking for some time about why a well-designed site, both technically supported and praised by some genuine scientific heavyweights, should fail to attract the attention its quality deserves.

There was no coordinated publicity push on general news sites, largely due to the tight initial budget.  This needn’t be a killer, since the internet has it’s own way of doing things which allows a kind of self-perpetuating PR. The problem is that asking for people’s opinions isn’t usually the best way to get them. Neutrality is at the core of nano and me, a laudable principle, but unfortunately not one to inspire (or rather provoke) debate.

There is a need for something like nano and me out there, run by people who genuinely care about emerging technologies and their effects on society, as Hilary Sutcliffe clearly does. I would hope that nano and me gets a second chance, and the opportunity to produce new content that genuinely does get the public involved.

  • Can you describe nanotechnology in one sentence? (more…)

Episode 5: Ted gets himself in a blur (the uncertainty principle)

April 28, 2010

Episodes 1 | 2 | 3 | 4

I was surprised and happy this week to get a twitter mention from proper science  journalist Alok Jha, saying he was enjoying following Ted’s adventures. But it’s just as important to me that non-sciencey types enjoy and hopefully understand what I’m getting at. Thanks especially to Joe Adams and Ian Box for messages of support… much appreciated!

So far Ted’s exploits have touched upon

Probability- the idea that individual events are unpredictable, but taking enough events into account, trends are very predictable if you know the probabilities. So light bouncing off or passing through glass is unpredictable at the single particle level, but with a lot of light it’s very predictable.

“Quantisation” of light: i.e. light comes in lumps which can’t be broken down into any smaller constituent parts.

Superposition of states: it’s impossible to find out about quantum objects without affecting the result. Until you do some test, quantum objects seem to be in two states at the same time.

Quantum nonsense: just because there are strange ideas at the quantum level, doesn’t mean you can extrapolate into other areas of philosophy!

Ted’s story continues after meeting his bearded friend Mike in a pub, having had a frustrating conversation with someone who believed that quantum mechanics explains (it doesn’t) how homeopathy works (it doesn’t).

———-

“How do you explain to someone that their worldview is wrong without sounding like a git?” Ted asked his friend after the homeopathy fan had left.

“Dunno, why does it matter?”

“Because we spend so much time and effort as a species to understand…

“Hang on.”

Mike left Ted steaming in his own frustration while he went to the bar, before returning with two pints and two shot glasses.

“Hang on.”

He returned from his second trip with two slices of lemon and a salt shaker. An unknown number of tequila chasers later Ted found himself standing with some difficulty in another bar, or maybe nightclub… (more…)

Episode 4: Ted and the quantum healer

April 21, 2010

Click here to read from part 1

Ted hadn’t planned for the answerphone. He’d been so worried about rejection that he hadn’t considered the possibility that he might not even get the chance to be rejected.

“So, er, maybe you know give me a call or something sometime if you want… see you… bye”. Ted hung up and sat cringing for a moment. What was about asking a girl out that turned him into a gibbering fool? Standing up to head into the kitchen, he tossed the phone back onto the sofa, only for it to light up and vibrate just as it hit the cushion. (more…)

Episode 3: Ted makes the call (superposition of states and Schrödinger´s cat)

April 13, 2010

So far, Ted´s attempts to find himself a date have led us through the ideas of probability and that light comes in individual lumps known as photons. We left him as he was about to make a call to a girl he had met the night before…

Having finally worked up the courage following his lighting-related procrastination, Ted decided it was time to bite the bullet and make a call to the girl he had met the night before. He knows that confidence is everything, but still it takes him a good fifteen minutes or so of sitting with his phone in hand, thumb hovering over the small green dial button.

He can feel the adrenaline rising with his heart rate, and for some reason his bladder feels much more full than it actually is. He went to empty it anyway, then went back to the phone, took a deep breath, and pressed dial… (more…)

10minus9 interview: Philip Moriarty (Part 2)

March 23, 2010
In the final part of this interview with Philip Moriarty from the University of Nottingham, we talk about pattern formation in nature, research funding, and find out the one physics problem Professor Moriarty would most like to see solved.
Part one ended with a shortlist of scientific heroes…
  • OK, but if you have to pick just one?

Let’s go with Fourier.

  • One major theme of your research has been pattern formation- why is this so interesting to you?

Every scientist searches for patterns in their data, whether those data arise from a highly complicated state-of-the-art particle physics detector (generating terabytes of measurements), a simple first year undergraduate experiment on the diffraction of light, or a digital image of a micro-organism.  We spend a lot of time thinking up different ways to represent the data so that the underlying pattern is easier to see. (We plot graphs rather than display the data as columns of numbers for precisely this reason). What really fascinates me – and very many other scientists – is when very similar patterns appear across widely different length scales.

the Cellular network is a pattern appearing in natural structures over a huge range of sizes, from the cells in a piece of cork (a), the hide of a giraffe (b), the Giant's Causeway (c) and the structure of the universe (d)

(more…)

10minus9 interview: Philip Moriarty (Part 1)

March 19, 2010

As part of a new series here on 10minus9, I’m interviewing various people working in and around nanoscience. First up is professor of physics, nanoscientist  and all-round nice guy, Philip Moriarty, who I was lucky enough to have as a PhD supervisor.

He’s featured in several of the University of Nottingham’s sixty symbols videos, which I personally think are fantastic for explaining some complex, and sometimes weird physics in an accessible way without dumbing down. He’s also heavily involved in running the university’s nanotechnology and nanoscience centre, which opened in 2007.

  • Can you define nanoscience in one sentence?

Nanoscience is the study and manipulation of matter on length scales where a small change in the size of a structure can radically alter its physical and chemical properties. Very difficult to provide a definition of nanoscience which covers all bases in a single sentence!

  • At what point did you know you wanted to be a scientist? Was there one thing that inspired you?

A really important early influence was my uncle. He was a radio amateur (radio ham) and I have very fond memories of spending time when I was eight or nine learning about basic electrical circuits (batteries, bulbs, electromagnets, capacitors, oscillators) from him. He also introduced me to the “Ladybird” series of books on electronics when I was a little older. He and I used to build circuits from those books where we’d simply hold components in place on a piece of wood using drawing pins. I still vividly remember the thrill of building a crystal radio on a piece of  softwood and hearing music from “out of the aether” – the idea that radio waves alone could drive the circuit with no batteries or amplifier fascinated me. My parents also bought me a microscope for Christmas around about the same time and guess that’s what initially triggered my interest in microscopy. So I knew from a fairly early age that I wanted to be a scientist. As a teenager, however, my choice of potential future career switched to rock star (..ahem…). (more…)

In Brian we trust

March 9, 2010

It’s totally depressing that so much mainstream science coverage at the moment is about this crisis of trust in science.

It’s  a positive feedback loop: reporting on lack of trust reinforces the original story. Reporting on public opinion is a nonsense that diverts attention from the actual issues. In the case of climate science, the real question- and let’s cut to the chase here- is whether or not we’re all fucked, and whether or not there’s anything we can do about it.

(more…)

Thinking like a novice: the bottom up approach to explaining nano

March 2, 2010

I’ve gone back to square one. I’m a complete novice again.

I’ve said before that the way to explain science is to try to make a connection with your audience. This means two things; to be passionate, and to be responsive enough to adjust your own view to that of the audience, rather than the expert.

The problem with being on the expert’s side of the fence is that after a while some ideas can become so familiar we don’t even think about them any more, especially if we talk to other scientists on a day to day basis. So to think like a novice it’s necessary to smash apart what we know and put it all back together from scratch.

For example, take a simple statement about nanoscience, that the properties of materials change when made small enough. All you have to do to reach the beginner’s state of mind is to keep asking the simplest possible questions until you run out of answers. It doesn’t take long. (more…)

Sixty(ish) Symbols

February 26, 2010


One of my great interests is the way language is used in science communication, how it can be used effectively, and what the barriers are to understanding. One of the largest obstacles is mathematics.

Maths is a way of formally and precisely describing the relationships between different aspects of nature, a bit like an architect’s blueprint. It’s also a kind of toolkit, used to predict the logical consequences of certain ideas.

For example, Einstein’s general relativity was a theory, expressed mathematically, which logically led to exact predictions about the outcomes of experiments yet to be conducted. The idea was that the path of a light beam would be bent by gravity. So if light passed close to a huge object like the Sun, its path would bend slightly. It’s not too hard to draw a picture of this and understand the idea, but the maths predicted the exact amount of bending. It was only measurable with the sun obscured by the moon during a solar eclipse. The test of the mathematical predictions was essential to the vindication of the theory. (more…)


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