Monday, November 26, 2012

Open Sesame! - Diplomacy through science

For as long as I can remember being even remotely aware of international politics I have known one thing to be certain: Arabs and Israelis don't get on! It's a fact that I've grown up knowing and has been reinforced time and time again in recent years with seemingly unbreakable cycles of violence and ever more dangerous and confrontational political rhetoric from both sides. The most recent exchanges of ammunition between Gaza and Israeli cities is simply the latest chapter in this sad tale of a fractured region.

But how will the story end? Little diplomatic progress has been made in the resolution of the conflict in the 60 years that it has been raging, and indeed the conflict has spread to bring countries such as Iran and Pakistan into the front line of political warfare. The historic, cultural, and religious differences between the two sides seem simply too insurmountable to overcome, and so a bloody (and potentially radioactive) conclusion seems a terrifyingly possible outcome.

Yet, in the midst of all the hatred and mistrust, there is a glimmer of hope on the diplomatic front that has come in the form of a collaborative scientific project. Sesame, which stands for 'Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East', is a multi-million dollar particle accelerator currently under construction near Amman, Jordan. Synchrotrons are fantastically useful facilities capable of producing a form of light known as synchrotron radiation that can be harnessed to investigate materials on unbelievably tiny scales. One such application is the study of proteins and other biological molecules down to atomic scales such that their structure and function can be better understood, and potentially so that we can develop more sophisticated drugs to target them. I recently wrote about the 2012 Nobel Prize for Chemistry awarded to Robert Lefkowitz and Brian Kobilka, which would have been entirely impossible without facilities such as Sesame. 

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Solar Eclipse

Southern Hemisphere view. This eclipse was only visible from New Zealand, Australia, and Chile.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Shaken not stirred - how to extract your own DNA

Last week I eagerly sat down to watch the first episode of a new series: Dara O Briain's Science Club. For those of you from outside the British Isles, Dara O Briain is an Irish comedian who, in recent years, has become one of the most popular comedians and broadcasters in the UK. Not only is he a very funny guy, he's also got a pretty sharp mind inside his (frankly massive) shiny head: he studied mathematics and theoretical physics at University College Dublin and has managed to hang on to his love of science despite moving into the world of entertainment. He, along with other big names like Brian Cox and James May, has been instrumental in advancing British popular science broadcasting in the last decade and has presented a number of science programmes, such as School of Hard Sums and Stargazing Live, giving science that much-needed welcoming and friendly face. 

His new series is most definitely worth watching and I await the next episodes with bated breath. The first was on the subject of genetics and epigenetics and my curiosity was more about how these complex topics would be presented rather than actually learning something (I'm already fairly familiar with the fields)! I was delighted by the casual and approachable way in which it was structured, and how debates about scientific funding and application were mixed in with the hard facts. 

Possibly my favourite moment, however, was when we were shown how to perform a simple task that I am very used to doing in the lab, but in your own home: extracting DNA. Perhaps appropriately given the latest addition to the James Bond franchise, this entailed the use of cocktail-making equipment and the kind of very strong vodka needed to make that perfect Martini. Some might think of this as a big gimmicky and irrelevant, but I quite like the idea of making somewhat abstract scientific principles more tangible in the mind of the general public. Bringing such a standard research procedure into people's homes helps to demystify the scientific method and hopefully give people a greater sense of ownership over this work than they might otherwise have.

So, today's post is a shameless plug for Dara O Briain's Science Club with the aforementioned DNA recipe thrown in for those of you unfortunate enough not to be able to watch it online! Enjoy.

1. Collect some of your cheek cells by swishing some (around 100ml) salt water around your mouth for 30 seconds or so. The solution will be a bit cloudy afterwards.

2. Add a few drops of washing-up liquid (to dissolve the cells' membranes) and a shot of pineapple juice (the proteases in this will degrade the myriad proteins found in your cells). Pop it all into a cocktail shaker and give it your best shake!

3. Pour through a cocktail strainer to remove bubbles, ideally into a martini glass or something in which it's easy to layer different liquids.

4. Chill some very strong (>80% abv) vodka on ice and they carefully layer over the top of your mushed up cell solution. At such a high concentration of alcohol DNA comes out of solution and so precipitates at the boundary between the two solutions. This looks like a white cloud forming at the bottom of the vodka layer, which can be scooped out by wrapping it around a toothpick or something similar. Et voilà! It may not look like much, but you have successfully extracted the chemical instructions that make you you. Not bad for 5 minutes work.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Science and Video Games

A long time ago I posted about an online game called FoldIt. After I made that post various other examples of crossovers between video games and science have been brought to my attention. Many of these, I have linked to from The Trenches of Discovery's Facebook and Google+ pages and some I've been saving for a rainy day. (Note, we often post links/comments to those pages when we don't consider them worth a whole blog post. If you read this blog, but aren't following either of those pages, you're missing out on some interesting stuff. You should remedy this.)

Well, it isn't rainy, but it is foggy, so the day has as good as come. What follows is a run through of some of the various science/video game crossovers I'm aware of. Some of these are neat video games, designed to either teach an aspect of science, or  try to give a phenomenological experience of what that aspect of science means for the world. Others are more like FoldIt, they are puzzle games that you try to solve, and in the process you're actually helping the scientists solve their research problems.