Cosmic Cabaret: Behind the Scenes

‘Peake into Space: Cosmic Cabaret’ was an evening of live poetry, music and comedy funded by the Institute of Physics and performed at Glasgow Science Festival 2016. The entertainment was directly inspired by the work of physicists and engineers from the University of Glasgow, working on cutting-edge research linked to space exploration. We chatted to one such engineer, Michael Perreur-Lloyd, about the cosmic work he’s doing in the School of Physics and Astronomy.

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Michael at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida

1. Who are you and where do you work?

I am Michael Perreur-Lloyd and I am a Mechanical Design Engineer working in the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Glasgow.

2. What was your involvement with the Cosmic Cabaret night?

As part of a group of scientists and engineers I met with the Cabaret artists to tell them about my area of research and what my job entailed. The artists took that information, and that of many other researchers, to craft the songs, poetry and comedy that was highlighted at the Cosmic Cabaret.

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Michael demonstrates safety procedures to poet Calum Rodger, comedian Gemma Flynn and musician Stuart Cromarty


3. Can you explain your work (in simple terms!)?

I design instrumentation for space gravitational wave observatories. I am project engineer for the Glasgow team that developed the optical bench interferometer for the European Space Agency LISA Pathfinder mission that was launched in December 2015. An interferometer – mostly made of very high quality glasses – is essentially a very precise measuring device that reads out the interference pattern of two laser beams and is sensitive to measurements as small as a picometre (10^-12m), or one trillionth of a metre. The LISA Pathfinder mission has successfully tested many technologies that will find their way on to a space gravitational wave observatory called eLISA in the early 2030s.

4. What’s your favourite thing about your job?

I am very fortunate to work with many intelligent and talented people on a beautiful campus in the west end of Glasgow.

5. Impress us with your favourite science fact

The LISA mission will involve flying three satellites in a triangular formation at a spacing a million kilometres!

We would like to thank Michael and all of the other scientists who helped inspire the fantastic performances at Peake into Space: Cosmic Cabaret. You can watch clips of some of the performances below.

Science with a beer and a board game

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Zombies, sci-fi, physics, chemistry, logic, maths. Something for everyone.

“Is this board game thing going to make me feel dumb?” My friend Kayla sent me this text after I had asked whether she and her mother wanted to join me for the ‘State of Play: Science Board Games’ event that was happening down at the Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA). What started as an idea for a pleasant afternoon of beers, casual chit chat and aggressive table flipping quickly became about something much bigger: why are people so scared of the word ‘science’? While Kayla tried to assure me that her hesitation was because “I only expect horrible things from and with you,” (#besties), I was determined to dig a little deeper.

We arrived at the CCA, and after inspecting a mysterious pile of board games left at the foot of the steps, our inquisitive minds took us to the terrace bar where the event organisers, Iain and James, greeted us enthusiastically. “State of Play is a group of like-minded board game enthusiasts. We put on board game activities at festivals and events, and not just science festivals, also book festivals and even canal festivals! We’re keen to share our amazing hobby with people who may not know about modern board gaming, and we’re convinced that gaming is a great way to engage people of any age with a topic or field of study.”

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You’re only as old as you feel. ‘Robot Turtles’ involves planning several moves ahead to get your turtles from A to B, which is a coding skill.

It looked as though we were the first to arrive and so had our pick of the mountain of games on offer. As we began scanning the titles on the boxes, I could see the fear surfacing on Kayla’s face as the thought of an afternoon spent playing ‘New science: The Giants upon whose Shoulders the World of Science Stands’ made her contemplate the life choices that had led her to agreeing to be my friend.

Iain was keen to help us pick our poison and rattled off a quick pitch of some of his favourites. After a brief screening process based on our logic of “this one’s heavy and so must have a lot of science in it,” Iain told us that we should play ‘Pandemic’, a game all about working together to contain a deadly virus outbreak. We swiftly ignored him, of course, in favour of ‘Robot Turtles’, “because they’re robot turtles, Alex!” And just like that, Kayla was home.

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Some *ahem* “fairly” placed obstacles, all in good sportsmanship.

As the guests began setting up the game, I was able to breathe a sigh of relief. Just maybe they would stick around long enough for me to get some half decent pictures, enough to trick people into thinking that they were actually having fun. It wasn’t long, however, until my fears vanished completely. This was my first time meeting Kayla’s mum, but the family resemblance was becoming clear. We were less than ten minutes in to the game, and already the two were inventing different ways they could bend the rules to get their turtles out of a tight spot. Twenty minutes in, and voices were raised in what was being dubbed “the cheating scandal of 2016” (remember kids, yellow flower turns your turtle left, purple flower right). Finally, we had hit family board game bliss, and I couldn’t have been happier.

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Cheating scandal of 2016 – the aftermath.

I began reflecting on what I had experienced with Kayla and her mum. As I had expected, everybody was having a great time, so why had Kayla been so apprehensive earlier? The point of the Glasgow Science Festival is to bring the public together with scientists, have fun and maybe learn a thing or two along the way. There’s no doubt that the festival has achieved this in spades, but still I’m often shocked by how many people attending these ‘public’ engagement events are actually scientists themselves. Herein lies the problem of ‘how do you engage with those that don’t want to be engaged?’

The turtles had been cleared away, and as Kayla basked in the glory of her victory, I was excited to see a new game being brought out, to the delight of the group. The game was ‘Cluedo’, but with some forensic science tweaking. “The twist we’ve made here is that after every round you get a card with a forensic science fact that also gives an extra instruction to the players,” Iain explained proudly. We also decided to do away with the painfully slow dice rolling and just take it in turns to make our deductions about who was responsible for Mr Black’s untimely fate while our playing pieces conducted their investigations from the comfort of the lounge.

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Investigating murders is tiring work, especially when you’re made of plastic.

Before the game was in full swing, I decided to press a little further into what my two companions thought so far. “I just think that the word science can seem a bit overwhelmingly daunting to someone with little to no experience with it,” Kayla admitted. “When you offer a science event or a science game, some people may be put off because they don’t know what type of science they will encounter.”

I asked them what exactly they were expecting when I asked them along to a science board game event. “I guess I thought it was gonna be some kind of science trivia game, with a bunch of scientists sitting around saying like ‘what’s the square root of 7225?’” Kayla laughed. “I’m not gonna lie, I thought that too,” her mother added.

Suddenly I was beginning to understand that it isn’t the presence of ‘science’ that makes these events sound unappealing to some, but the confusion about what the word science even means in the context of the event. Here we were playing with turtles, building towers and catching dinosaurs. You certainly don’t need a PhD to do that.

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Super-rhino! Players take turns building a monstrous tower block of cards, with no regard for planning permission. Like Jenga, but with more lawsuits.

We continued to sit and chat away with James, Iain and his kids as game after game was brought out. Before we knew it, our time was up. We had sat there playing games for the entire duration of the event. What was supposed to be a quick stop in for some pictures had turned in to three hours of fun.

As we gathered our things and gave our thanks to the team, I took the opportunity to ask Kayla whether her opinion of these “science things” I rave about, had changed. “I think this event helped me get over my fear of the word science a bit,” she began. “I feel that I’ve simply been writing off potentially awesome events only because

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‘N-tropy’ More wacky construction with architect-in-the-making David, where the dice roll determines how many of the previous sticks the one you place must touch.

they were labelled as science. I definitely will be less concerned about attending events labelled as science in the future.”

Be sure to check out State of Play’s City Builder event on Sunday 19 June 14:00-17:00 at the CCA terrace bar. These events are part of the wider Glasgow Science Festival schedule.

Can’t make it? Not to worry – The Antonine Board Gamers meet on the third Tuesday of every month in the Wheatsheaf Inn, Main Street, Torrance G64 – For more details contact Iain at  play@othergames.co.uk

Zika Virus: the Glasgow Story

Outbreaks of Zika virus in Brazil have been all over the news. But did you know that a Glasgow scientist helped discover this virus, as revealed in documents found in the University of Glasgow’s archives? A special event for Glasgow Science Festival will explore the past, present and future of this virus.

1. Who are you and what do you do? 

I’m Ellie Tiplady and I’m an Immunology PhD student at the University of Glasgow

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Ellie speaks to reporters about her finding in the University of Glasgow atchives

2. What brings you to Glasgow Science Festival this year?

I’ve been doing an internship with the University Archives, researching a collection donated by Alexander Haddow – one of the discoverers of the Zika virus. We are putting on an event on the 15th of June, with myself and two other panelists, to discuss the present, past and future of the Zika virus.

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Original research notes from the archive

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Haddow’s findings

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The research took place on forest expeditions

3. 2016 is Scotland’s Year of Innovation, Architecture and Design. What innovation could you not live without?

My smartphone – perhaps literally as I have come to depend on it for so much.

4. It’s Glasgow Science Festival’s 10 thbirthday! We’ll be celebrating with some science-themed cake and balloons. What’s your birthday treat of choice?

It’s the one time of year I feel it’s acceptable to eat a whole cake by myself, so I can’t pass that up.

5. And finally: impress us with your favourite science fact or joke.

I’m no good at jokes, hence the academia. My favourite science fact is that the elephant shrew, named for its long nose, turns out to be more closely related to elephants than it is to shrews.

Join Ellie and other Zika experts on Wednesday 15 June from 18:30-20:00 at the University of Glasgow. The event is FREE but ticketed. For information and booking, click here.

 

 

Fun with DNA

DNA, the ‘building block of life’, is what makes us so alike yet so different. This molecule is the subject of three hands-on activities for families at this year’s Glasgow Science Festival, led by postgraduates Weronika, Lauren and Millie.

1.Who are you and what do you do?

Weronika

Weronika: My name is Weronika and I am currently working on a PhD project, which aims to design a quick and simple diagnostic test for hepatitis C virus.

Lauren

Lauren: My name is Lauren and I am currently working on a PhD project which aims to find new treatments for haemorrhagic stroke.

Milly

Milly: My name is Milly and I am currently a PhD student working on prostate cancer

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

Weronika: I have never done public engagement work before, but I thought that taking part in the Glasgow Science Festival would be a perfect opportunity. I genuinely like to try out different experiences and challenges and I always found the prospect of working with people exciting. There is nothing more rewarding than to engage with the public, especially non-scientific people as it helps to remind me why I love science so much.

Lauren: Glasgow Science Festival is my first public engagement work! I enjoy the challenge of trying to make relatively complex concepts more accessible to those without much prior knowledge of the subject. I think it is really important for children and young people to be exposed to the amazing work that is going on within the field at the moment. Sometimes it can be difficult to relate what is learned in the classroom to how this knowledge could be applied in real life and I think the Glasgow Science Festival gives current science students a fantastic opportunity to be able to forge this link and spark interest in the sciences!

Milly: Being a part of the Glasgow Science Festival Internship has been my first experience with public engagement. I find public engagement such an important part of research, allowing scientists to talk about their research and teach the public on relatively complicated topics in a much more understandable way. I got involved so I could help children understand science in a fun and creative way!

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

Our activity is based around DNA and how each of us has our own unique changes to this DNA sequence which makes us, us! Through activities including building a DNA molecule from sweeties to catching a criminal and saving the Scottish Wildcat through DNA analysis, our activity will leave everyone with a greater appreciation for the importance of DNA technologies in our world today. Plus you will get a chance to gain some scientific knowledge in a fun, family-friendly way!

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

Weronika: I definitely could not live without my smartphone. It allows me to send emails, read scientific articles and communicate with people. That definitely saves my time tremendously and not to mention space in my already overly large bag!

Lauren: I think my answer may be similar to many people – my smartphone! It is extremely helpful nowadays to be connected wherever you are – whether that be for work or keeping in touch with friends/family. I think you only realise how important your device is to your day to day life when you forget to charge it and your day seems to run much less efficiently!

Milly: The internet has to be the BEST innovation of all time. It allows me to keep in contact with people all over the world as well as keeping me up to date on research …. and shopping!

 5. Impress us with your favourite science joke or fact

There is enough DNA in an average person’s body to stretch from the sun to Pluto and back. 17 times.

Weronika, Lauren and Milly will be bringing fun science to the Science Sunday Big Birthday Bash on 19 June from 10:00-16:00 at the Hunter Hall, University of Glasgow.

 

The Gravitational Wave Detectors

Communicating complex concepts and specialised research is a big challenge for scientists. This group of postgraduates have developed a fun, interactive activity to explain gravitational waves to a public audience at the Science Sunday Big Birthday Bash.

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1. Who are you and what do you do?

Holly: I’m a PhD student in the chemistry department and I make materials that can levitate trains using powerful magnetic fields!

Euan: I’m a PhD student in the particle theory group of Glasgow university. I study ways of simulating small patches of spacetime on a supercomputer.

Finlay: I’m Finlay, and I’m a PhD student who fires lasers at strange liquids to make crystals grow in them.

Fraser: I’m Fraser, a PhD student in Biomedical Engineering at the University of Glasgow. I use nanotechnology to make millions of tiny pillars that fit on a slide no larger than your thumbnail, and we want to use these to get stem cells to do what they’re told.

2. What brings you to Glasgow Science Festival this year?

Holly: I’ve never carried out public engagement before, but am really excited about the prospect of making science cool for non-scientists!

Euan: Besides GSF I am a volunteer organiser for the Pint of Science festival, in which researchers give talks about their work to general audiences in pubs. I am attracted to public engagement by the prospect of inspiring the next generation of scientists.

Finlay: I love teaching, and helping others see that ‘complicated science’ is actually easier than it seems. This is my first time being involved with Glasgow Science Festival, but won’t be the last!

Fraser: I’ve never been properly involved with public engagement, but I’ve taught in a high school before as part of my undergraduate course in Physics. I really loved seeing young people, and even the teachers, getting involved in some “complicated” concepts like Gravitational Waves and Spacetime, and seeing the questions they asked and the ideas that they had towards it. Public engagement is also really good for teaching yourself things, because if you want to explain something in a really easy way to understand you need to really understand it yourself first.

3. 2016 is Scotland’s Year of Innovation, Architecture and Design. What innovation could you not live without?

We’ve built ourselves a pretty cool make-shift gravitational wave detector that you can come and try out to detect a gravitational wave, and have a chunk of spacetime that we’ve cleverly captured in a tupperware box, along with a star on a stick, to show you how spacetime really makes gravity happen.

4. It’s Glasgow Science Festival’s 10th birthday! We’ll be celebrating with some science-themed cake and balloons. What’s your birthday treat of choice?

Holly: Definitely mascara.

Euan: google maps

Finlay: My GPS watch.

Fraser: Hot showers. Have you tried going a day or two with only cold showers? Brrrr.

5. And finally: impress us with your favourite science fact or joke.

There are places in the universe which are physically impossible for humans to reach, since they are moving away from us faster than the speed of light.

Holly, Euan, Finlay and Fraser will be at the Science Sunday Big Birthday Bash on 19th June from 10:00-16:00 in the Hunter Hall, University of Glasgow. For more information, visit the website.

 

Green Biotech?

Can you be ‘green’ and in favour of genetic engineering? That’s the question under scrutiny at this year’s Café Scientifique, led by the Royal Society of Biology and the Biochemical Society. We had a chat with one of the panelists, Dr Louise Horsfall from the University of Edinburgh.

1. Who are you and what do you do?

Louise Horsfall

I am a synthetic biologist and lecturer in biotechnology at the University of Edinburgh

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Photo: Copyright (c) Peter Tuffy Photography/Edinburgh Research and Innovation Ltd.

 

2. What brings you to Glasgow Science Festival this year?

I’m taking part in the free Glasgow Café Scientifique event ‘Can we give biotech the green light?’ organised by the Biochemical Society and the Royal Society of Biology.

It’s being held in the Victorian Bar at the Tron Theatre, so I’m expecting quite a lively discussion about the pros and cons of modern biotechnology.

3. 2016 is Scotland’s Year of Innovation, Architecture and Design. What innovation could you not live without?

Vaccinations, I’d likely be dead by now if I hadn’t received any.

4. It’s Glasgow Science Festival’s 10th birthday! We’ll be celebrating with some science-themed cake and balloons. What’s your birthday treat of choice?

Birthday cake for breakfast, it’s only once a year and I swear it makes it taste even better!

5. And finally: impress us with your favourite science fact or joke.

I’m not too good at remembering jokes, and certainly not science ones.

What do you call a teletubbie that’s been burgled?

….a tubbie

Technology based jokes count, right?

Listen to Louise and other panelists at ‘Café Scientifique: Can We Give New Biotech the Green Light?’ on Monday 13 June, 19:00-21:00 in the Tron Theatre. The event is FREE and no booking is required. For more details, visit our website.

Science-themed Monopoloy

Our postgraduate internship brings together researchers from a huge range of subjects, be it stem cells, ice sheets, nano-sized materials or renewable energy. We chatted to one of the postgrad teams as they prepare to bring their hands-on activity to the Science Sunday Big Birthday Bash on 19th June.

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The team preparing for GSF 2016

1. Who are you and what do you do?

crystal

Crystal: Hi, my name is Crystal Smiley and I am in my final year of my PhD within the School of Geographical and Earth Sciences. My research focuses on detecting oxygen and hydrogen isotopes within water from different terrestrial sources, such as the Greenland Ice Sheet and the annual snow cover, within the marine environment in retrospect to marine palaeo-runoff proxies.

Mark

Mark: I’m Mark and I am currently doing a PhD in Biomedical Engineering. My research involves understanding how cells change their behaviour based on what kind of surface that they are growing on, which could be used to make stem cells turn into bone.

Eddy: I’m Eddy and I’m in my first year of a Chemistry PhD at Glasgow University. I’m investigating nano-sized metal oxide clusters that could be used as molecular magnets.

Roberta

Roberta: I am Roberta, a first year PhD at the Chemistry department. I have always been fascinated by the use of renewable sources to produce clean energy. My research is focused on this field by looking at an alternative way to store energy using hydrogen.

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

Crystal: Yes, I have done two public engagement activities before. I participated in the Glasgow Science Festival in 2013 presenting Ocean Acidification affects on corals. In 2014, I travelled to the US to give a seminar on “Opportunities in Earth Science” within the Aberdeen, Washington and McCleary, Washington School Districts. I started public engagement because I wanted to share the world of science and its many fascinating discoveries. I also wanted to strengthen my presenting skills to a non-science based community.

Mark: I’ve not done any public engagement before. I wanted to get involved because I wanted to take advantage of as many opportunities that a PhD provides as possible. A PhD gives you a chance to take part in so many things that you’d never thought about before and this is one of those things that you don’t know what it’s all about or whether you’ll like until you’ve tried it.

Eddy: This is my first time doing public engagement. I wanted share my enthusiasm for science and how science has changed our world for the better.

Roberta: This is the first time I’ve done public engagement but I really like the idea of sharing my passion with others. I think that doing public engagement is a beautiful way to inspire young minds to pursue a career in science and I really like the idea of being a part of this.

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

Come visit us and discover some of the Scottish Innovation technologies that make Glasgow a greener, cleaner, safer and smarter city. Join in on the fun by playing a giant innovation version of your family friendly board game, MONOPOLY! As you move around the board you will have the opportunity to learn and collect some of the new innovations that are happening around Glasgow. Collecting four innovations of the same colour or one of each colour wins a special prize and bragging rights for the year!

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

Crystal: It’s hard to narrow down one innovation to live without but I couldn’t live without my camera.

Mark: Too many things that, I think, we wouldn’t even realise we needed until they weren’t there. I would say a microwave; it makes it really easy to heat up all my leftover meals.

Eddy: The kettle.

Roberta: I think I could never live without a smartphone. This is very funny because actually I was one of the last among my group of friends to get one and now I use it for almost everything.

4. Finally… impress us with your favourite science fact or joke!

Crystal: Why wasn’t the Geologist hungry? Because they lost their APATITE.

How often do you like jokes about elements? PERIODICALLY

Eddy: Atoms, with a callous disregard for etymology, can in fact be split.

Never trust an atom. They make up everything

Roberta: If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the precipitate!

Meet Crystal, Mark, Eddy and Robert and have fun with giant Monopoly at the Science Sunday Big Birthday Bash on 19 June, 10:00-16:00 in the Hunter Hall, University of Glasgow. More information on the website.