QED: a scarf’s story

As most of you will know, a couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending the QED conference in Manchester. It was a truly excellent, if over-stimulating, weekend, and I’m only now coming properly back down to earth!

I wanted to do something to contribute to the fundraising aims of QED, so I turned to my main creative outlet: crochet. I crocheted a long, stripy scarf that turned out utterly awesome (even if I do say so myself…) and it came along to meet all of you wonderful people at QED. Now it’s home from that adventure and it’s ready for its next: being sold on eBay to raise money for the National Autistic Society! Please check it out, and throw down a bid if you’re feeling generous.

Now let me tell you a little more about it!

The scarf had a wonderful time at QED. It made its debut appearance at the Gala dinner, where it was very excited to meet ace physicist, TV presenter and all-round legend Jim Al-Khalili:

It thoroughly enjoyed the comedic talents of Helen Keen and Matt Parker and couldn’t believe its luck when it got a cuddle from Matt afterwards. From his expression, I can only assume that Mr. Parker was equally excited to meet scarf.

The scarf was then introduced to Merseyside Skeptic Society’s Mike Hall, who posed briefly with scarf and yours truly, before running off with scarf to show it off to all and sundry.

At some point in its gallivanting, scarf was honoured to get a rare photo-opportunity with the almost-legendary Giant Book of Fantastic Facts, which has, for privacy reasons, asked for its true identity not to be revealed. It’s a hard life being a skeptical celebrity, especially if you’re only a few inches tall.

Scarf was safely returned to me in time to be introduced to the wonderful George Hrab, QED emcee and general cool dude. Geo elevated himself to the highest heights of awesome by recognising not only that the scarf was crocheted, but also by commenting on the technical difficulty of making the cut-out letters. Geo, I salute you.

After a well-earned night’s sleep, scarf was delighted to take part in the 10:23 challenge, and as expected, suffered no ill-effects from the homeopathic “overdose”. Then, just before lunch, scarf marched right up to the wonderful Simon Singh to grab a photo, although it was a little bitter after feeling upstaged by Simon’s hair!

Scarf was very excited to meet mathematician/juggler Colin Wright, and it even had a go at some juggling!

Finally, the scarf couldn’t just up and leave without saying hi to Merseyside Skeptics’ Marsh and Nicola, who were very tired and a bit bemused by scarf’s approaches, but posed for a photo anyway!

So that’s the scarf’s story. I just want to say a big thank-you to everyone who posed with the scarf, it really meant a lot to it (and to me)!

Please do check scarf out on ebay – all proceeds go direct to the National Autistic Society (one of the charities QED was officially supporting) and I promise you it is soft, warm and totally made of awesome.

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QED part 2

It’s breakfast time on day 2 of QED and I thought I would take the opportunity to update you all on yesterday afternoon’s high jinks!
We had a fantabulous, if somewhat mindboggling, talk about the possibility of time travel from Jim Al Khalili, which was followed by Chris Atkins telling us all about the cult of celebrity. His talk was as hilarious as it was scary, and featured guest appearances, appropriately enough, from Max Clifford, Simon Cowell, Amy Winehouse, one-fifth of Girls Aloud and Bob Geldof! Chris French, ghost hunter and psychologist extraordinaire, was up next, and he gave us a fantastic insight into the psychology of haunting experiences.
The talks were rounded off by the awesome Steven Novella who told us all the ways our brains fool us – his talk could be subtitled “Why our brains kind of suck”, he told us!

As if all of that wasn’t enough, the evening Gala dinner and entertainment was epic! I had the pleasure of sitting with Jim Al Khalili who proved himself to be a wonderful dinner companion – we talked about everything from physics to linguistics to football! His reaction to the video Matt Parker played was also quite amusing!!

We also were entertained by the fantastically enthusiastic Helen Keen who talked at a hundred miles an hour about space, and was truly great! People, see her show! We finished the night with a set from George Hrab, which was great, and because I’m running out of superlatives, I’ll leave it at that!

The QED scarf was excited to meet Jim Al Khalili, Matt Parker, George Hrab, Mike Hall and lots of others! If you see it, come say hi!

QED part 1

It’s lunch break at QED and lots of skeptics are eating sandwiches in the hotel bar!
This morning has been excellent! Bruce Hood opened proceedings with a talk about our apparent in built tendency to believe supernatural things such as mind-body duality and essentialism. He was a super, funny and engaging speaker, and I am certainly going to seek out his book!
We then had Kat Akingbade who was obviously incredibly nervous but had some interesting things to say about the perception of religion by atheists and skeptics, and vice versa. I must admit I disagreed with some of her positive aspects of religion – but as I said on Twitter I actually prefer some disagreement, since without it we’d risk becoming a bunch of skeptical yes men…
We then had a great panel about Ghost Hunting with Hayley Stevens, Trystan Swale and Chris French. They really complimented each other with different perspectives on the same subject and I enjoyed their humorous anecdotes too!
I have made a crocheted QED scarf which will be auctioned for charity and I’d love to introduce it to as many people as possible! If you see a tall girl with plum-coloured hair and an awesome scarf – come say hi!!

It’s almost time!

I’ve been looking forward to this weekend for ages! I’m getting ready to head to Manchester for QED! I’ll hopefully be putting up a few posts throughout the weekend, especially on the subject of the awesome, global, 10:23 campaign! And if you’re gonna be at QED then I can’t wait to meet you!

The Twelfth Day of Awesome

For me, one of the most irritating things about woo-mongering is the implication that we need magic and fairy stories to make something awesome. But as this blog as a whole and this series of posts in particular aims to prove, reality is plenty awesome enough on its own.

Today’s example of awesomeness is… The Internet!!111!eleventy!

Yep, the internet. If ever there was an example of something really really real and really really awesome, the net is it. So here are some reasons why:

1. If it weren’t for the internet, I wouldn’t know I was a skeptic.

It was almost exactly a year ago when I had just finished reading Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science, and decided to check out the web forum. From there I followed a link to Mike Adams’ (yes, that Mike Adams) list of “Things Skeptics Believe” and onwards to the various skeptical take-downs of that piece of drivel, including PZ Myers‘and Steven Novella’s. Somehow I found my way to the website of the Merseyside Skeptics Society and their Skeptics with a K podcast. I listened to their take-down of The List, wept with laughter, and suddenly realised. “Hey, I’m just like them”.*

Sad as it sounds, I had always sort of assumed that my lack of belief in woo-woo and pseudoscience was a flaw on my part. I always felt like maybe I was missing something. But not any more, thanks to the internet, (and SWaK)!

2. If it weren’t for the internet, you wouldn’t be reading any of this post, or the other Twelve Days of Awesome.

I’ll leave it for you to decide if that’s awesome or not!

3.  If it weren’t for the internet, my work would be a whole lot harder.

The internet makes mind-bogglingly huge amounts of information available in an instant. Whether an Undergrad has just asked me a fundamental question that I should know the answer to and have shamefully had to Google, or I’m literature searching for a new bit of research, I’m sorted. The internet makes my collaborators easily accessible, wherever they are. The internet allows me to work on computers that happen to be the only ones in the whole world that can do the thing I’m trying to do, even when they’re a hundred miles away. Obviously science happened prior to the internet, but I’m glad I’m part of the new generation…

4. If it weren’t for the internet, few of the crazy woo-peddlars and quacks would have a platform.

Wait, why’s that a good thing, you ask? Well, if these things are made very, very public, then there’s a good chance that they will be properly dealt with, or at least properly ridiculed.

5. The internet made Twitter.

That is all…

So, there you go. I’m sure everyone has their own examples of why the Internet is awesome, because it really, truly is.

*Except I don’t say bollocks nearly as much.

The Eleventh Day of Awesome

For me, one of the most irritating things about woo-mongering is the implication that we need magic and fairy stories to make something awesome. But as this blog as a whole and this series of posts in particular aims to prove, reality is plenty awesome enough on its own.

Today’s example of awesomeness is… Little Science!

During this series of posts, I’ve mentioned Big Science twice. Big Science is great, but I don’t want to give the impression that it’s the be all and end all of awesome! So it’s time to turn the spotlight on little science – the stuff that influences our daily lives without us really noticing.

Here is a picture of 5 random objects I chose from around my flat. They are: a non-stick frying pan, a mirror, a fork, a battery, and an LED reading light. I’m going to try and tell you about the little (and not-so-little) science behind all of these things.

1.  Non-stick frying pan. This one’s easy. The non-stick coating on the pan is something called Teflon, a polymer made of carbon and fluorine. It’s otherwise known as PTFE – polytetrafluoroethylene. The reason it is so fabulously non-sticky is a property called hydrophobicity: PTFE repels water. This can be easily demonstrated by putting a drop of water on a PTFE surface. The droplet will be much “rounder” than a similar droplet on a non-PTFE surface. This is really easier to see with a picture:

In research, the angle which a droplet of water makes with a surface is used to characterise the hydrophobicity of a surface. Cool, huh?

PTFE is also very inert, that is to say, non-reactive. For this reason it’s used to protect pipes and containers from corrosive chemicals, and I use it every day in the lab as a liner for my steel reaction vessels. It’s also an excellent lubricant because it generates very little friction when rubbed against other surfaces.

2.  A mirror. Used to examine ones reflection to aid in the beautification process, mirrors are packed with science. They are generally made of a sheet of glass with a thin metallic film applied to the back, but this isn’t as simple as it sounds. In order to make a mirror in this way, you have to have a metal which is highly reflective, stable, non-toxic, and capable of sticking to glass. Mercury is great at sticking to glass (and was used in some of the first glass mirrors), but is inconveniently poisonous. Gallium and its alloys also stick to glass (I found this out the hard way in the lad by accidently turning a microscope slide into a mirror) but are rather expensive…

Silver is a classic choice for mirror making, but it won’t stick to glass on its own, so the production of silver backed mirror has several steps. Here’s a video which explains it in detail, which is worth watching with the sound up for the first few seconds alone.

Clean glass is sprayed with tin chloride, which provides something for the silver to stick to. Then a silver solution is applied, followed by a layer of copper to protect the silver from tarnishing, and finally layers of paint to protect the thin metallic films. Making silver mirrors is a chemical process.

Some mirrors are made by applying a thin layer of aluminium in a vacuum chamber. This is a physical process, and it’s particularly useful for making mirrors that need to have the reflective surface on the front (e.g telescopes) because the product of aluminium “tarnishing” is transparent, and protects the surface from further corrosion.

If we were to get into the subject of mirrors that reflect things other than visible light, I could go on all night. Let me just briefly mention that there are acoustic mirrors, X-ray mirrors, neutron mirrors (which are used to direct and focus neutron beams at ISIS!) and many more…

3. A fork. This is made of stainless steel, which in turn is made by adding chromium to ordinary steel. Similarly to the aluminium coating on a mirror, the chromium forms a thin layer of oxide on contact with air which protects the steel from corrosion.

4. A battery. Specifically a 9-volt PP3 non-rechargeable zinc carbon battery! The battery provides a voltage for use in an electric circuit due to chemical reactions which occur inside it. In this type of battery, the zinc is oxidised at the negative terminal, and manganese oxide is reduced at the positive terminal. As I was taught in school, when you’re talking electrons, Oxidation is Loss, Reduction is Gain (OILRIG!)so there are excess electrons at the negative terminal, and too few electrons at the positive, so the electrons will “flow” through your circuit from the negative to the positive terminal… simple!

The field of electrochemistry is one of the most active in today’s physical and materials chemistry research departments. Battery related subjects include new materials for rechargeable batteries which can power big things like cars, making environmentally friendly batteries and tiny batteries for our ever-shrinking electronic gadgetry. Research into chemical reactions involving oxidation and reduction, and the use of electrodes and electrolytes, is truly epic in scale.

5. An LED light. Now, LEDs are really cool. LED stands for “light-emitting diode”, and there’s some really cool physics behind the technology. Let me try and explain without you all falling asleep. In a material called a semiconductor, the electrons are arranged in two distinct “bands”, one of which is tightly bound to the atomic nuclei, and one of which is loosely bound. Electrons in this loosely bound band can ‘flow’ easily from atom to atom, and it’s for this reason it is called the “conduction band”. If electrons are present in the conduction band, the material will conduct electricity. Semiconductors have a band gap between these bands, so some kind of external input, such as heat, is required for electrons to hop up into the conduction band.

If you take a semiconductor and add another material to it, it’s possible to alter the positions of the electrons, either by adding more to the conduction band, or taking some away from the tightly-bound band, also called the “valence band”. In an LED, both of these types of semiconductor are used. When a current is applied to the LED, electrons flow from the material with excess electrons towards the material with too few. Along the way the electrons drop from the conduction band to the valence band which represents a reduction in energy. Because this energy has to go somewhere, it is emitted as light.

The colour of an LED is determined by the size of the gap between the valence and conduction bands. A larger band gap will lead to light on the blue end of the spectrum, a smaller band gap will lead to red light. And the colours can be further altered by combining different materials, coatings on the LED’s glass housing, lenses and mirrors.

I probably failed in my attempt to keep you awake, but I could talk about these things all evening!

Little science is just as awesome as its bigger, flashier brother! And if anyone out there wants to send me their pictures or lists of five random objects, I’ll do more instalments of “little science” in the future!

The Tenth Day of Awesome

For me, one of the most irritating things about woo-mongering is the implication that we need magic and fairy stories to make something awesome. But as this blog as a whole and this series of posts in particular aims to prove, reality is plenty awesome enough on its own.

Today’s example of awesomeness is… Chemistry!

I decided to have a bit of fun today, with a slightly sideways look at the awesomeness of chemistry.

I was the kind of child who was interested in everything at school, especially science and maths, and I think part of the reason that I chose chemistry as a degree/career path was that it’s a very visual subject. Chemistry and chemical reactions are tangible, observable things and this captured my imagination from a very early age.

To see what today’s kids have available to introduce them to the wonders of chemistry, I headed off to town and bought myself a chemistry set!

I was pleasantly surprised by what I found inside the box. The test-tubes and flask were nice, sturdy glass, and there were lots of vials of interesting looking chemicals. There was even a little burner that you fill with methylated spirits. It all looked nice and proper. Oh the possibilities!

I started by playing with copper sulphate, it makes a pleasingly bright blue solution and very pretty crystals.

Copper sulphate crystals forming on the cold surface of a mirror.

One of the experiments suggested in the manual was to heat a few crystals in a test-tube and “note what happens”. So I did. Sure enough, the crystals turn white as they are heated, and if you add a drop of water, they turn blue again. Simple explanation – anhydrous (i.e. dry) copper sulphate is white, and hydrated copper sulphate is blue. This actually illustrates an important chemical point. A lot of crystalline materials can incorporate varying amounts of water in their structure, and this can cause havoc by changing their properties.

Copper sulphate goes from blue to white and back to blue... it's all down to the water content.

I also had a go at test-tube soap making: sodium carbonate and calcium hydroxide were mixed together and dissolved in water to make sodium hydroxide, which was then boiled with some lard and some salt to make a goopy blob of soap. The two-stage transformation was particularly appealing to me, and that’s an important point about chemistry, too. If you have a certain product in mind, you might have to trace back tens, even hundreds of steps to get to a starting material you can work with. Chemistry requires a lot of imagination!

I also enjoyed the various flame tests (the kit includes iron, calcium and sodium salts, but encourages experimentation with household chemicals, food items and even printed text) but then again, I’ve never met a chemist who doesn’t like burning things!

The most “awesome” things I tried were the exchange reactions with zinc and aluminium and copper sulphate. The zinc or aluminium replace the copper in the sulphate and metallic copper precipitates out – magic!

The destruction of aluminium foil in copper sulphate solution leads to the precipitation of metallic copper.

That said, I think this kit would be intensely frustrating to a child, particularly one without a chemistry-literate adult to help. Some of the things I tried could have worked, but didn’t at the concentrations suggested in the instruction booklet. I wouldn’t consider this kit a toy, exactly, because I’ve seen more immediate and fun results from “kitchen chemistry” but for an interested child it would be perfect to push them a little beyond the national curriculum. I was pleased to see that even with today’s crazy attitudes towards safety, a kit with real chemicals, and the fabulously fun spirit burner, still exists and is easily available on the high street! We need lots of kids thinking that chemistry is awesome!

On a final note, here’s something which, until recently, I honestly thought that everyone knew about… the awesomeness of custard. Custard forms something called a non-Newtonian fluid, which has some slightly odd properties. I urge you all to try this yourself: custard powder or cornflour, minimum amount of water, go for it! Here’s a silly video to whet your appetite.

Isn’t chemistry cool?!