Tuesday, 16 September 2014

26.2 miles for science and lifelong learning

Things have been rather quiet on the Science on Toast front for a while, and that due in part to lots and lots of running. My wife and I have signed up for the Dublin Marathon which is taking place at the end of October 2014, in order to raise funds for a charity which is very close to my heart, both scientifically and otherwise: Inspiration for Life, which I have talked about before on this blog.

It appears that the world these days is running mad, and also fundraising mad, as the recent ice bucket challenge phenomenon has proven. The power of social media enables people to share their messages of fundraising easily, quickly, and even virally within their immediate and extended networks. The result of this ease of communication is that the world is full of good causes, so numerous and so well-publicised that each individual can't possibly donate to every single one, nor even give to a fraction. Instead, we must choose causes that mean something to us and motivate us to get moving and help in some way, such that the combined efforts of all fundraisers across the world can be more than the sum of their parts.

Mike and Kim Weir after a race in Sydney.
So, to marathon training. To the most hardened runners out there (and they are out there for sure, there are people in Sheffield for one thing, who do marathons up massive hills and stuff for fun and then run home etc.) this might seem a walk in the park, but let me just have my say.

A marathon is stupidly far! It is a very, very silly idea to try and run this distance. This is a brutal challenge which will leave you physically and emotionally drained. If you can finish it. In the words of the Dublin Marathon officials:

Whatever your target or motivation, remember that the marathon is a rough and tough event. It is not for the faint hearted. If it were easy it would be no challenge.

Speaking of challenges, this brings to mind the amazing Michael Hilton who recently completed an Iron Man challenge for the charity totalling over 140 miles - incredible!

So far we are more than half way through our training, but it is getting tough. Just finding enough contour lines to run along in Sheffield is a challenge in itself. I am a modest 3 kg lighter than when training started about 10 weeks ago (with the realisation that diet is an extraordinarily important part of a healthy lifestyle, and how frighteningly easy it is to eat calories compared to burning them).

If you would like to sponsor us for this event, you can do so here. Every penny donated will go to Inspiration for Life in order to help them do their work. We have already received extremely generous donations for which we would like to express our gratitude: knowing we are making a difference will help us get across the line.

Friday, 20 June 2014

Neutron holiday

I have recently come back from one of the 'big experiments' that I have mentioned from time to time on this blog, in this post in particular.

Travelling in the British summer sunshine is a pleasure in itself, but this was a particularly sunny and rewarding trip to the ISIS facility at Rutherford Appleton Laboratories. Coke was quaffed, burgers were consumed and good company and conversation abounded. Neutrons were plentiful and samples were well-behaved. At times like these this doesn't really feel like a job at all; and maybe it isn't ("I don't really feel like I have done a full day's work", I reflected to one of my coworkers. "We haven't", said he).

OK, I have been slightly rash here. This type of experience is of course is countered by difficult, exhausting and almost fruitless trips. Preparation for this trip has taken many 'person-weeks' of intense preparation, and a fair quantity of stress, to be honest. Work is work, but it doesn't have to be so all the time, so I'll settle for that. Anyway this post is about walking up hills and taking pictures and not "philosophosising" too deeply, to be pronounced as spelt.

ISIS Target Station 2 (in the sun). Image Mike Weir but thanks to STFC.
One thing I find a real pleasure is to climb up ISIS's man-made hill and survey the scientific scenery. Apparently, there was already a hill of leftover earth that was dug out from when the first construction was done on the ISIS site (although it might not have been called that in those days). This hill was then 'in the way' when construction was planned for Target Station 2 (pictured) and so was moved. For good measure, some more earth was excavated and dumped on top of that in turn to create a sort of arc-shaped mound. You can see a scar on the side of the hill where ground level once was. There is a little path up there where you can go and look at the scenery while your experiment chugs along.

The view is of a fairly flat Oxfordshire scene although I am told you can see all the way to the Ridgeway - there were some ridgey looking things in the distance but I can't say I could have identified any correctly. The scientific scenery of the Harwell Campus (if I am indeed giving it its proper name) is spread out all around, from the shiny blue ISIS Target Station 2 to the flying saucer of Diamond. Beyond this scene, in the distance, are the monolithic cooling towers of the power station at Didcot. Bountiful numbers of Red Kites soar in the skies above this part of the world.

The scientific scenery from ISIS hill. Image Mike Weir but thanks to STFC.
I was accompanied on this trip by two colleagues who had never been to ISIS. I would like to think that they were impressed with ISIS and all of its facilities.

As I write my computer is chugging through the data we collected, rejigging and reprocessing it to get the best possible result. There is definite heat coming up through the laptop keyboard.

Well, it just finished, so I am off to fit the data. Enjoy the summer (now or in six months, depending on your hemisphere).

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Eccentricity at northern latitudes

I spent a couple of fantastic years out in Sydney, Australia, as I have alluded to several times on this blog. One huge, obvious difference between the UK and Australia is the climate, and when I speak to people about the whole experience, this is the first port of call in their minds – the weather in Australia is hotter and sunnier, and therefore, “better”, and this perception is very near the top of people’s mental pros and cons lists as they try and understand our reasons for returning to England.

Sunshine: Australian...

To be a pedant, Sydney experiences much more tumultuous weather than most Brits really realise; twice as much actual rain falls out of the sky in Sydney than in London, say, and the wind howls in off the ocean at times. Sydneysiders are also occasionally rewarded with truly spectacular thunderstorms (although if the lightning occurs without rain there is a terrible risk of bush fire). On the other hand, while a week of drizzle and rain is perfectly possible in the Sydney winter, the rain does all tend to fall at once in rather biblical downpours, leaving many more sunny days to enjoy. It does get “stinking hot” in most bits of Australia too, to use the local parlance, and in my humble opinion as a “delicate English rose” (as a wise Australian once described me), the novelty of 35+ degrees Celcius wears off pretty damn quickly, especially on a work day.

OK, it's still better in Australia. I lose. If you have never been there, you should really go!

One category though where Sydney falls down is that for a pontificating Brit, the days in the Summer are just too short! The latest the sun ever sets is approximately 8pm – the longest day being about 14 hours. Not much chance of a long stroll after tea in the twilight! In the UK we get much closer to 10pm and a longest day of 17 hours.

...and English
OK, say my critics, why is this whinging Pom getting excited about an extra 3 hours of daylight? Doth the gentleman protest too much? 

Well I’m just getting excited about Britain’s northerly latitude, is all. I love the fact we pay such a high price in the winter, experiencing days where the sun only peeps its pale yellow face a glancing angle over the horizon for just 7.5 hours, only to be rewarded with those long, balmy evenings in the (beer) garden. I love the fact that at the vernal equinox, around 21st March each year, the days in the UK are lengthening by a mind-boggling 3.5 minutes each day! I think our varying seasons and wonky northern latitude fuel our creativity, our industry, and even our eccentricity. There is something about that pale and slanting light...

I loved it in Australia and I would go back there in a heartbeat (particularly if it actually did only take that long to get there!), but I love the seasons here in the UK. It makes it all the better when the Sun does actually come out, because it feels a bit special.

My grandfather on my mum's side has a story that up in the east of Lancashire in England, the light of the sun never truly faded from the sky in the middle of summer. He would spend long nights out working on the railways and reported seeing a dim light in the sky that persisted all night long around the summer solstice (many Brits will also report a difficulty in sleeping at this time of year due to the light). When I recounted his tale to former residents of that particular area they seemed surprised that such an effect was possible "that far south". 

When doing some trawling on this topic on the internet however, I discovered that twilight does in fact last all night on the summer solstice anywhere north of 54 degrees north - the latitude of the city of Lancaster, UK, that is. The sun never truly stops illuminating part of the atmosphere since it never drops more than a certain angle below the horizon. I was pleased that my grandad's story has some scientific backup, although of course, he knows what he saw! Although this is not the land of the midnight sun, we Brits are truly living at an eccentric northern latitude.

Fun for nerds:
The BBC's Sydney weather page (the nerdy bit is the graph at the bottom) and their London page 

Monday, 24 March 2014

The 24 Hour Inspire 2014

The 24 Hour Inspire will take place on the 27th and 28th of March 2014.

Back when I was a Ph.D. student during my first stint at the University of Sheffield I had the pleasure to share a department with Dr. Tim Richardson, a gregarious, outgoing and altruistic Reader in Physics with interests close to my own. We would share a friendly chat in the tea room and a joke or two about our shared recent discovery of running (jogging!) and how it was helping us get somewhat more into shape. I could tell Tim was a likeable and sociable man for myself, but it was really through others that I began to realise just how far reaching Tim's positive influence was: he was a mentor and even friend to countless undergraduates who raved about his teaching style, his lectures legendarily full of demonstrations and the admission that learning physics isn't always easy (or the admission even that lecturers had to learn things at all!). Tim was also a respected boss and colleague. A few of my good friends down the pub have passed through his research group at one time or another and give happy accounts of their time in 'Tim's lab'.

In my first post doc in Australia I got as far as offering to run experiments for Tim and we were discussing our preparations to get the samples shipped over and ready for action; but that was the last time I ever spoke to him.

While I was in Australia, Tim was diagnosed with cancer. Wishing to turn his illness into a positive message to help others, Tim along with his friends and colleagues set up a charity, Inspiration for Life. The rest of the story has been put in to words much better elsewhere, (on the Inspiration for Life website and blog, for example) so I will not attempt to do so in very much detail. Above all this, Tim began keeping a diary after his diagnosis in order to share his experiences, fears and hopes with others, before he sadly died on 5th February 2013, aged 48. His diary will soon be available through Inspiration for Life.

The charity decided that a fitting tribute to Tim would be to host an annual event in the form of a 24 Hour Lecture-a-thon, called the 24 Hour Inspire. The first event took place in 2013, and the second will take place this week (at the time of writing): from 5pm on Thursday 27th March to 5pm on Friday 28th March 2014. This exciting event sees speakers from across the University of Sheffield and beyond tackle a wide range of topics as diverse as poetry, music, physics, sperm, robots; perhaps more accurately, life, the universe and everything. The event will raise money for the Sheffield-based Weston Park Cancer Charity and Impact (makeabigdifference.org).

I am excited about the event, not least because I am privileged to be able to play a small part in this amazing effort. I have volunteered to play some music at various times, not to mention contributing delicious items for the bake sale that will also take place throughout! I would encourage anyone in the Sheffield area (or further afield) who would be interested in taking in some lectures, some music, all whilst helping raise money for a very good cause. The event is taking place in Firth Hall at the University of Sheffield and starts at 5pm on Thursday 27th March. Admission will be £1 for one lecture or £5 for all you can take!

For more information about Inspiration for Life, or to donate to support their work:

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

UK facilities: the big science of looking at small stuff

Somewhere in a field in Oxfordshire, there are, side-by-side, two very large scientific instruments. One is housed partly in buildings as large as aircraft hangars, and partly under large mounds of earth; it fires protons onto a huge metal target to produce neutrons and muons. This is ISIS. The other is housed within a ring, looking side-on like the landed saucer section of the starship Enterprise; this machine accelerates electrons, causing them to produce exceedingly bright electromagnetic radiation in the X-ray spectrum. This is Diamond, the UK's synchrotron. These machines are the engines chugging at the heart of research facilities; scientific communities built around central instruments, covering square miles of buildings, employing hundreds of people and providing a scientific 'laboratory-from-home' for thousands more scientists, engineers, technicians, students and collaborators.

ISIS from the air. Image credit: STFC.
Diamond and ISIS are examples of big science that live right here in the UK. Facilities like these and others overseas happen to have become the bread and butter of my own scientific work, but more about that later.

It's a sort of rule* that the smaller the thing you wish to see, the larger a machine you will require to see it: think of CERN, the vast underground ring straddling the borders of countries and accelerating its packets of particles to collide together with the energy of a double decker bus, and all to reveal the tiniest and most fundamental particles in the Universe. We are talking a little bit smaller in terms of facility size, and a little bit bigger in terms of the structures we are looking at. Still we are in impressive territory; the primary ISIS beam line is hundreds of metres long from accelerator to target (and then some, for each instrument), and it's fair to say that the typical length scales probed are measured in nanometres; that is multiples of 0.000000001 metres, or billionths of metres. To use the obligatory reference, that is 100,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair.

I often cite a major turning point in my career as a Ph.D. student as the first time I entered the guide hall of the first Target Station at ISIS. I stepped along the raised metal gangway into that vast edifice of science, crammed with equipment, cranes, and portakabins. Among the concrete shielding blocks was an electric hum and the mechanical breathing of countless fans and compressors. It was a truly inspiring experience - and although on that first visit I had no idea of the difficulties and challenges that lay ahead (the beam is switched on 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for most of the year), I nevertheless had the strong feeling that I had just entered into a new, and special, scientific world.

The experimental hall at Target Station 1, ISIS. Image credit: STFC.

On that first occasion, I was helping out with a neutron reflectivity experiment. Like the bands of colour visible when a thin slick of oil sits on top of the surface of water, seen for example by the side of a road on a rainy day, the reflection of neutrons from a surface is sensitive to extremely thin layers of material and can tell us accurate information about the thickness and the chemical composition of what is deposited there. In this case, we were studying polymer brush layers: single polymer chains tethered at one end to a silicon surface to create a brush-like layer rather like a carpet of seaweed waving about in the water, but only nanometres in height. Such layers have extremely low friction and so are good lubricating coatings; they also hinder proteins from sticking to surfaces and so help to prevent the fouling process which can lead the body to 'reject' foreign objects, and so polymer brushes have uses in medical applications.

In my current work on polymer nanocomposites, we have a material which consists mainly of our host polymer but with mixed with a small proportion of a 'nanofiller', or additive, to change its properties. In our case, our nanofiller is usually some form of graphene (the flat sheets of carbon that have commanded so many column inches since their relatively recent discovery in 2007). We know that the nanofiller is in the composite (it is now a different colour, for example), but how is it distributed? What shape and size are the lumps? What effect, if any, has the nanofiller had upon the polymer chains themselves? From these questions and other, macroscopic experiments, we aim to improve and tailor these materials for use in engineering applications. For my part, we use small-angle neutron scattering, another of the techniques commonly available at facilities such as ISIS (and many others across the world).

That is, we take a beam of neutrons and 'shoot' them at the sample. As they interact with the sample they are scattered, forming a reciprocal-space scattering pattern which we collect on a detector. From that pattern we are able to deduce the shapes and sizes of features in our sample. The inverted nature of scattering is apparent: small features scatter the neutrons through wide angles, and conversely, the larger the feature, the smaller the scattering angle. Thus, even though we are talking about the big science of small stuff, you need a big instrument tens of metres in length that can see very low angles, to look at the bigger end of the small spectrum - objects up to 300 nanometers and beyond! (The smaller the angle the bigger the object you can see - hence the existence of 'ultra-small angle neutron scattering' for even bigger stuff).

These two examples are just a tiny taste of the breadth of science that goes on at facilities like ISIS and Diamond. We are lucky and indeed privileged to have such facilities, and to be able to use their unique powers to dig down and explore the fundamental structures of materials and of life, since a large and growing part of our community is looking at biological systems, such as proteins, DNA and living cells.

An experiment at ISIS or a similar facility can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. To me, it usually means a hearty full English breakfast followed by long days and longer nights of measurement, experimentation and investigation: labours in the laboratory and trials on the beamline. Above all other things though, it usually means that unique feeling that you are doing something that you quite simply can't do anywhere else, and that is special every time.

For more information about ISIS click here, and to find out more about Diamond click here.

*Only sort of, because we have very huge telescopes and other instruments that look at very, very huge things that are very, very, very far away, and they are way outside of my knowledge, although well worth getting excited about.