Thursday, 19 September 2013

PAPS2013 - spiders and steel

Last week I attended the Physical Aspects of Polymer Science conference, the 26th biennial meeting of the Institute of Physics Polymer Physics Group. This meeting has been running since the 1960s and showcases the strong tradition of polymer science (and physical aspects thereof) in the UK. It's also a meeting that resides deep in my own personal scientific folklore, having attended two of these meetings, in Durham and Bristol, as a fiesty and idealistic young Ph.D. student in the naughty noughties.

Due to my recent career gear change I had the great pleasure of being simply a member of the audience - with no poster or talk to deliver - and from this relaxing vantage point I was able to take in the full and varied program of the highly stimulating but questionably acronymed 'PAPS13'.

A couple of highlights for me happened in adjacent talks. The University of Manchester's Tom Waigh's talk about coherent x-ray imaging techniques went quite far in convincing me that we'll one day use special x-ray beam lines to make coherent images of materials on atomic scales, realising the dream of just 'taking pictures' of polymer (and other) molecules. Tom Waigh was not the only scientist at the conference to highlight the benefit of real space images over inverse-space scattering techniques, and Sheffield's own Nic Mullin showed some incredible AFM images where single polymer chains could be resolved.

The following talk came from Sheffield materials scientist Dr. Chris Holland, who explained some fascinating mechanical and rheological studies of spider silk, and the incredibly sensitive unspun 'dope' that the spider uses to spin its silken fibres. Despite all the interesting physics and rheology on show it was mother nature's example that truly hit home the strength of spider silk though, when our speaker related us his tale of an unfortunate bird who flew into a greenhouse back in Oxford that was home to his eight-legged research associates, at feeding time.  The feathery fool was comprehensively caught in the spiders' webs and had to be freed by human intervention. I had to wonder what sort of sticky end the bird might have met at the hands (legs) of this pack of hungry spiders, or if indeed the spiders were more scared of it than it was of them.

The real shudders came at the refreshment break shortly after though when I reached for a hot beverage. I made a very high pitched noise when I finally realised (after the brave Dr. Matt Mears had to point out) what was residing in the bottom of my mug.

Eight legs or sixteen?
A hairy spider.

Dr. Chris Holland assured me this hairy stowaway was not one of his collaborators, claiming that he prefers his coffee without spider. I only wanted a tea, and was glad I did not boil or drink Spid (think tea bag on the head, hot water, and milk) and he was later released into the wild. Whether you like them or not, they are incredible beasts. I am going to settle for respecting spiders from a distance, and marvel at the properties of their silk.

The conference dinner was held at the Kelham Island Museum and featured a self-guided tour of the museum's collection of artefacts chronicling Sheffield's steel-making heritage. This was followed by some enthusiastic extra-curricular drinking activities in the excellent Fat Cat pub and beyond to round off a great meeting.

More about spider silk:  
Laurie Winkless writing for Materials Today on Super-Strong Spider Silk
Oxford Silk Group webpage

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

471 litres of tea

The last about 10 months have seen a lot of change for this blogger, including starting two new jobs and two house moves, and even a return to the UK from Australia. Phew, I'm pooped, but I'm also very, very glad to be back in the saddle working as a post doc at the University of Sheffield.

After finishing a two-and-a-bit year stint working as a post doc at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, I spent 10 months working for Elsevier as a journal publisher and an Associate Editor. Perhaps I'll say more about that stint in publishing in a later blog post, and perhaps not, because I don't want to sound like some kind of newly formed expert in scientific publishing. Needless to say I could not resist the allure of the world of scientific research and here I am, back in the saddle, like a scientific cowboy. Yeee-ha!

It's a mug

To facilitate my transition back to the academic world my wife has bought me a scientific mug to smoothen the synapses with freshly brewed tea. The mug depicts a collection of objects in the solar system and various facts about their diameters, orbits etc. She rightly pointed out the conspicuous presence of Pluto, our de-classified solar system mascot. We assumed that the design dated from before our cold and distant cousin was torn from the hall of planetary fame, and we also mused that perhaps these issues were not at the forefront of the minds of people who sell mugs. Since the mug's design makes no attempt to classify the objects depicted thereon, planet, star or otherwise, I am quite happy that Pluto is there and I find the little yellow dot pleasantly nostalgic.

To get me back into the scientific mentality, a brief calculation on how much tea per year is likely to be quaffed from this receptacle. The mug has a diameter of approximately 10 cm and a similar height (yes, a fat aspect ratio). Thus its volume is pi*5cm^2*10cm or 0.785 litres. I plan to empty this mug an average of three times a day, five days a week, and I estimate that about 40 weeks a year will be spent in the Department. Thus I estimate 471 litres of tea will be drunk per year, which for your information is 9.42 petrol tanks full on my car.