Five minutes with… Prof Jim Hough

Our new show, ‘Chasing the Waves‘, funded by the STFC, uses music and comedy to explore how Glasgow scientists contributed to one of the biggest discoveries of the century: the detection of gravitational waves.

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Prof Jim Hough

Professor Jim Hough has been at the heart of gravitational wave research for decades. He has also been at the heart of ‘Chasing the Waves‘, sharing his stories and expertise with the creative team to help develop the show. We grabbed five minutes for a chat  about his involvement.

1. Who are you and what do you do?

I’m Jim Hough, experimental physicist. I work on suspensions, mirror coatings etc. for next generation gravitational wave detectors

2. How long have you been researching gravitational waves?

Since 1971

3. What’s the best bit about being a scientist?  And the worst bit?

Best bit – the thrill of solving problems

Worst bit – doing the admin

4. How were you involved with ‘Chasing the Waves?’

Wearing a wig and behaving like an idiot. You can watch Jim in our music video here.

5. What did you think of the show?

Excellent

6. Tell us your favourite science joke or fact.

The lion and the rabbit

The Great and Powerful Fizz

Every year, Glasgow Science Festival’s Internship scheme gives postgraduate students the chance to develop, test and deliver a public engagement activity at one of our busy family days. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be chatting to some of the students involved, giving a flavour of what’s in store.

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L to R: Amira, Charlie, Nivedha and Salma

1. Who are you and what do you do?

I am Amira Elayouty, last year Ph.D. candidate in Statistics. I am from Egypt and have been living in Glasgow for 3.5 years now. My Ph.D. focuses on developing tools and methods to analyse and extract common and peculiar patterns of environmental high-frequency (15-min) data recorded over long periods of time.

Hi, I’m Charlie Gilles and I’m a PhD student in Earth Science here at Glasgow. I’m a geologist and love all things rock related, including the music, but give me a rock, any rock, and I’ll chat to you about it for days.  My research focuses on improving our understanding of landslides, by developing a hazard assessment system using different aspects across all fields of geoscience.

I’m Nivedha, a first year PhD student researching nanowire transistors, a tiny switch (100 times smaller than a human hair!) that allows us to count the number of electrons that pass through it.

My name is Salma Islam and I’m a postgraduate researcher at the University of Glasgow in Physics & Astronomy. I spend my days running simulations on the movement of galaxies trying to figure out how the universe works, specifically trying to learn more about the mysterious invisible dark matter that makes it up and causes galaxies to move in strange ways. I blame being raised from the age of 6 on a diet of Star Trek, Star Wars and every science fiction movie under the Sun for me turning out the way I have. I have no regrets 🙂

2. Have you done public engagement before? What made you want to get involved?

Amira: Not really. I am keen on participating and getting involved in such a big event in Glasgow to acquire more skills in communicating and delivering science to non-science people in an easy and simple way. I believe that part of the success of research is the ability to deliver it to everyone in and out the field of research. It is also a great opportunity to enhance other skills like team working, planning, budgeting, taking responsibility… and above all it is fun. We do need to break up our work with some fun to boost our productivity.

Charlie: I’ve done some public engagement, working with one of three Geoparks in Scotland. The main focus was to share and inspire those about local geology and how important geology is to our everyday life. I was keen to get involved with the science festival to get more people engaging with science in a fun and interactive setting. I also got involved to help improve my communication, media and project management skills. It’s been great!

Nivedha: I have done the ‘3 Minute Thesis’ competition, and I am also getting involved in the Glasgow science slam. I got involved to spread my enthusiasm for science to the public. It also helped me become a more confident speaker and helps me articulate complicated concepts in simple terms.

Salma: Yes I have. I’ve always enjoyed presenting science and fun facts to younger audiences in ways that are cool and amusing. Seeing children enjoying themselves while learning something new never fails to make my day. My first time talking to kids was actually for Star Wars Day several years ago talking about the science of Star Wars … complete with lightsabers! I’ve also volunteered with the IOP ‘Lab in a Lorry’ project as it toured around Scotland trying to blow up wine glasses and have also done work with the Glasgow Science Festival in previous years. I loved every minute!

3. Describe your activity to us. Why should we come along?

Have you ever looked at the list of ingredients on your toothpaste, shampoo or a packet of Rennie and thought: “Huh, I didn’t realise sodium bicarbonate is in this… I wonder… what else it’s used for?”

Well we all have and that’s why we decided to explore the surprisingly wide range of uses of sodium bicarbonate and have twp great activities for you and your family to com along and try!

Our activities:

‘The Cakes that Fizz’ – This experiment allows you to mould your own cake and watch it fizz. Any excuse for making the addition of glitter an educational experience.

‘The Mad Scientists’ Tea Party’ – Putting a fun and colourful twist on the classic neutralisation reaction experiment.

So come along and join us, The Great & Powerful Fizz, as we explore the wonderful uses of sodium bicarbonate.

Expect plenty of fun, fizz and fabulous facts!

4. 2016 is Scotland’s Year of Innovation, Architecture and Design. What innovation could you not live without?

Amira: Internet is the best invention ever, can’t imagine my social and research life without it!!!

Charlie: I admit it: I get lost easily.

This is why I love my GPS and can’t picture not having it in my car or on my phone! Just type in an address, or even just the name and your GPS will guide you there. Stress free driving with the bonus of avoiding awkwardly asking for directions. You can get maps for all over the world, allowing you to explore new places, or find old ones, without having to open the A to Z. I’ll never get lost again!

Nivedha: I could not live without Wi-Fi. It allows for such quick and easy access from almost anywhere to a vast amount of knowledge, we call the internet. It allows us to communicate remotely via Skype/Facetime and it always keeps me entertained.

Salma: I genuinely am not sure how to answer this … there are so many things I can’t live without! I’d probably have to say electricity. We’ve become so reliant on it and everything is interconnected because of it that the whole world would go mad without it, just without the zombies 😀 . Definitely electricity 😀

5. Impress us with your favourite science joke or fact

Fun fact…

Sodium bicarbonate was a frequent source of punch lines for Groucho Marx in Marx brothers’ movies. In Duck Soup, Marx plays the leader of a nation at war. In one scene, he receives a message from the battlefield that his general is reporting a gas attack, and Groucho tells his aide: “Tell him to take a teaspoonful of bicarbonate of soda and a half a glass of water.”

Join Amira, Charlie, Nivedha and Salma for ‘The Great and Powerful Fizz’ at the Science Sunday Big Birthday Bash on Sunday 19 June. The day runs from 10:00-16:00 in the Hunter Hall and is absolutely free.

So, you discovered gravitational waves…

Last week there was a buzz around the Kelvin Building at the University of Glasgow as physicists excitedly prepared for the announcement they’d been waiting to hear for decades: “Ladies and gentlemen, we have detected gravitational waves. We did it!”

Martin Hendry is Professor of Gravitational Astrophysics and Cosmology at the University of Glasgow and part of the global team who made the discovery.  He has also been a part of Glasgow Science Festival since its inception ten years ago, sharing his passion for physics and astronomy with thousands of people. Martin answered our questions on what this discovery means and its link to Glasgow research.

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In addition to being a world-leading astronomer, Martin is a self-professed Star Wars geek. In reference to gravitational waves, he said “In Star Wars, Darth Vader tells us not to ‘underestimate the power of the dark side.’ This amazing discovery shows how right he was.” – Read More in Time Magazine.

What are gravitational waves?

Gravitational waves are ‘ripples’ in the fabric of space-time caused by some of the most powerful processes in the universe – colliding black holes, exploding stars, and even the birth of the universe itself. Albert Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves in 1916, derived from his general theory of relativity. Einstein’s mathematics showed that massive accelerating objects (such as neutron stars or black holes orbiting each other) would disrupt space-time in such a way that waves of distorted space would radiate from the source. These ripples travel at the speed of light through the universe, carrying information about their origins, as well as clues to the nature of gravity itself. – See more at: http://www.ligo.org/science/faq.php

How do we detect them?

We can detect using what we call a laser interferometer.  LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory) is the world’s largest gravitational wave observatory and one of the world’s most sophisticated physics experiments.  LIGO consists of two laser interferometers located thousands of kilometres apart, one in Livingston Louisiana and the other in Hanford Washington State.  LIGO uses the physical properties of light and of space itself to detect gravitational waves. An interferometer like LIGO consists of two perpendicular “arms” (in LIGO’s case each one is 4km long!) along which a laser beam is shone and reflected by mirrors at each end.

When a gravitational wave passes by, the stretching and squashing of space causes the arms of the interferometer alternately to lengthen and shorten, one getting longer while the other gets shorter and then vice-versa.  As the interferometers’ arms change lengths, the laser beams traveling through the arms travel different distances – which means that the two beams are no longer “in step” and what we call an interference pattern is produced. (This is why we call the LIGO instruments “interferometers”.)

Now the effect of this change in arm length is very small — for a typical passing gravitational wave we expect it to be about 1/10,000th the width of a proton! But LIGO’s interferometers are so sensitive that they can measure even such tiny amounts.

What is Glasgow’s involvement with this research?

The Institute of Gravitational Research at the University of Glasgow has been at the heart of the search for gravitational waves for decades, and pioneered some of the key technologies that have made this remarkable scientific discovery possible.  For example Glasgow led a consortium of UK institutions that played a key role – developing, constructing and installing the sensitive mirror suspensions at the heart of the LIGO detectors that were crucial to this first detection. The technology was based on our work on the earlier UK/German GEO600 detector. This turned LIGO into Advanced LIGO, arguably the most sensitive scientific instrument ever, to give us our first direct glimpse of the dark universe.

Why is the discovery of gravitational waves significant?

Overall, I believe our discovery is an astounding scientific achievement:  it provides the first direct evidence that black holes exist, that they can exist in pairs, and that those pairs can collide and merge – releasing enormous amounts of energy in the form of gravitational waves in the process, in fantastic agreement with the predictions of general relativity.

Our discovery isn’t just about checking if Einstein was right, however.  Detecting gravitational waves will help us to probe the most extreme corners of the cosmos – the event horizon of a black hole, the innermost heart of a supernova, the internal structure of a neutron star: regions that are completely inaccessible to conventional telescopes.   So the first direct detection of gravitational waves and the first observation of a binary black hole merger are remarkable achievements, but they represent only the first page of an exciting new chapter in astronomy.

The next decade will see further improvements to the Advanced LIGO detectors and extension of the global detector network to include Advanced Virgo in Italy, KAGRA in Japan, and a possible third LIGO detector in India.  This enhanced global network will significantly improve our ability to locate the positions of gravitational-wave sources on the sky and estimate more accurately their physical properties.  The new field of gravitational-wave astronomy has a very bright future!

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The first direct detection of gravitational waves. Graphic by Daniel Williams

For more information visit the LIGO FAQ page, authored by Martin.

Images of Research

A picture speaks a thousand words. Science meets art at The University of Strathclyde’s new exhibition “Images of Research”, which comes to Glasgow Science Festival next month. Rachel Clark tells us more. 

Image by Guy Hinks.

Who are you and what do you do?

My name is Rachel Clark, I am a Project Manager at the University of Strathclyde tasked with engaging businesses, organisations and the public in partnering with the University.  I’ve worked in this role for four years, moving on from a research post in the drug discovery group.

What brings you to Glasgow Science Festival this year?

This is the first year I’ve been involved with the festival so I’m very excited to be part of such an amazing range of events.  I’m displaying this year’s “Images of Research” at The Lighthouse, 6th – 8th June.  I hope the eye-catching array of images submitted by University staff and students will inspire you to learn more about the research we do at the University and how it benefits wider society.  It’s a competition so make sure you vote for your favourite shortlisted entry here and register for the event to see who’s won!

With the Commonwealth Games just around the corner, Glasgow is gearing up to welcome the world. What’s your top tip for visitors?

When you’re walking around the city don’t forget to look up – the buildings are fantastic!

Favourite Scottish food and drink?

Oooft – you’re on my favourite subject now – I couldn’t possibly decide so why don’t you visit one of the Farmer’s Markets at Queens Park or Dumbarton Road (find out more) and taste a range of local produce.  Don’t forget to check out the best coffee you’ll ever taste by Matthew Algie at various locations including Tinderbox.

Impress us with your favourite science fact. Or joke.

Anhydrous copper II sulphate turns warm and blue when you add water, I still remember that from my first chemistry set!

Images of Research comes to The Lighthouse from 6-8th June and is free to drop-in. You can vote for your favourite image until 31st May and book to attend the awards ceremony on 6th June.  

‘Onion bhaji’ Meteorites, Trinidadian Leeches and Monster Skulls: Bringing Science to the Community

CLAN (Community Led Ambassador Network) is a project funded by the Scottish Government’s ‘Talking Science’ scheme which aims to bring science into the top 0.5% most deprived areas in Scotland through free public engagement activities led by Glasgow Science Festival and University of Glasgow researchers.

The project is now well underway. By the time of its completion, CLAN will have reached around 6500 people, from young children to the elderly.  Events have ranged from a family-friendly ‘Space Fair’ at the Platform community hub in Easterhouse to science-themed crafts for adults at a refugee drop-in centre in Govan.

Science of local interest has also featured, such as the High Possil meteorite which fell  in 1804 in an area of Glasgow now known as Lambhill. For the first time in over 200 years, the meteorite was returned to Lambhill for an event with Dr John Faithfull, who shared the little-known story of its discovery with locals at Lambhill Stables community centre. Visitors were free to handle a variety of stony and iron meteorites on loan from the Hunterian Museum, including one specimen whose crusty appearance quickly earned it the nickname: “the 4500 million year old onion bhaji”.

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A stony iron meteorite, dubbed “the onion bhaji”

Researchers from across the university have played a valuable role in making science accessible to diverse audiences.  Dr Mhairi Stewart from the Institute of Infection, Immunity and Inflammation attended the G15 Youth Group’s ‘Girls Night’ in Drumchapel, enthusing girls aged 11-13 in parasitology. Her unique props included a real human brain and a leech which was delicately prised from the leg of a member of the university’s Trinidad expedition team after some particularly boggy fieldwork in 2006.  At the same event, Dr Zara Gladman got her hands dirty with the chemistry of bath bombs (her face and body remained peppered with glitter for several days).

bath bomb

A selection of skulls on loan from the Hunterian Zoology Museum provided the perfect focus for a Halloween-themed art class at Drumchapel Community Centre last month in collaboration with DRAW, with children drawing some beautifully imaginative pictures and building their own fantasy animals (with appropriate herbivorous or carnivorous dentition) out of clay.

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Ben the Monster. Carnivorous dentition clearly visible.

Also last month, Dr Stewart White, Darryl McLennan, Robert Gillespie and Zan Boyle from the Institute of Biodiversity, Animal Health & Comparative Medicine donated items to the “scientist’s goody bag”, which inspired a science-art workshop for children who were very excited to try on lab coats, have a go at pipetting and be simultaneously fascinated and grossed out by Stewart’s botfly larva.

One of the great successes of CLAN has been to harness the expertise of researchers in support of practical community projects. Ecologist Dr Deborah McNeill, for example, has been paired with volunteers at the Lambhill Stables community garden, where she is offering advice and training in pond biodiversity surveying.

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Lambhill Stables community garden

It is hoped that these events will mark the beginning of a number of meaningful and mutually beneficial relationships with community groups across the city and beyond.  Glasgow Science Festival is keen to hear from more researchers who would like to be involved in future community-based public engagement. If you are interested, please contact Deborah McNeill: Deborah.McNeill@glasgow.ac.uk

Doors Open for Some Quality Science

In 1990 Glasgow was the first city in the UK to host Doors Open Day as part of the European Heritage Days. Now in its twenty fourth year, the free city-wide festival celebrates our unique architecture, parks, history and people.  For one week (16-22nd September), visitors are encouraged to explore over 100 buildings, from the iconic City Chambers to hidden gems like the Scottish Mask and Puppet Centre.

This year, Glasgow Science Festival is getting in on the action with science-infused activities at three unique venues . . .

Lambhill Stables is a Category B-listed history building from the 1830s which was once home to horses that pulled the barges through the Forth and Clyde Canal. Today’s it’s a vibrant community hub, offering a range of activities for all ages.

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Lambhill Stables

On the morning of 5th April 1804, several men working in a quarry witnessed the first recorded meteorite in Scotland.  “I think there is a great judgement coming upon us!” shouted one eyewitness, as the meteorite crashed down into what is now Lambhill.  Where did it come from?  What is it made of?  And why is this important to scientists?  Join Debbie and Zara this Saturday 21st September from 10:00-16:00 to uncover the mystery of the High Possil Meteorite – and see a slice of the 4500 million-year-old rock for yourself!

A tribute to the High Possil meteorite is unveiled. The ancient rock has been the focus of research by scientists at the University of Glasgow.

A tribute to the High Possil meteorite is unveiled. The ancient rock has been the focus of research by scientists at the University of Glasgow.

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Easterhouse Fire Station

Cowcaddens Fire Station (Port Dundas Road, Glasgow, G4 0ES) and Easterhouse Fire Station (9 Grudie Street, Glasgow, G34 9BL) will be opening their shiny red doors this weekend, giving you the chance to see the inner workings of a modern fire station.

On Saturday 21st and Sunday 22nd September, our very own Rebecca will be stationed at Easterhouse Fire Station with some fun fire-fueled demonstrations!  On Sunday 22nd September, Tom will be doing the very same thing at Cowcaddens Fire Station from 11:00-15:00.

See you there!

Comedy, music and death, naturally…

We’ve passed the halfway mark and it’s already day six of Glasgow Science Festival!

Last night, Simon Watt, Helen Arney and six of Glasgow’s funniest academics performed to a sell-out crowd at The Admiral Bar, with spider sex, fly sperm and sordid constellations among the well-researched jokes!

Check out the highlights for today’s events below:

Ticketed events

Fancy yourself as the next Brian Cox? Interested in public engagement or the media as a career? This lunchtime from 12-1pm at the University of Glasgow, join experts for a Science Communication & the Media: Careers Q&A. Get your free ticket here.  If you can’t make it along in person, tweet your questions @GlasgowSciFest, hashtag #askGSF!

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Feeling inspired after last night’s platter of academic comedy? Hone your communication skills and try a unique form of public engagement by joining a FREE stand-up comedy workshop for researchers at Blackfriars from 5-6 pm. For tickets, email sciencefestival@glasgow.ac.uk.

From sex to death, Channel 4’s Simon Watt isn’t scared to tackle some big questions! Tonight he asks ‘Why We Die‘ at Blackfriars at 7pm – tickets are still available here.

If you enjoyed Helen’s science-infused songs from last night then don’t miss her award-winning show ‘Voice of an Angle‘ at Blackfriars tonight at 9pm – get your ticket online.

Drop-in events

Water at the Heart of Science

21st Century Plant Science

The Clipperton Project’s Floating Laboratory

Glasgow Science Centre

MAKLAB: Design, Build, Create