The best of the Fest

18 March 2007

You cannot have failed to notice that it is in fact National Science and Engineering week and the Cambridge Science Festival is now in full swing. Yesterday was the grand opening at that saw at least 10,000 people descend on the town, eager to get hands on and interactive. The really big launch took place yesterday and I went along with some of the other members of the Naked Scientists team to find out a bit more about it. My first port of call was the Pathology department where I had the opportunity to meet the microbes that live in me and on me with Dr Gillian Fraser. Cambridge Science Festival LogoGillian - What we've done here today is tried to show people the types of bacteria which are associated with our bodies. We've decided to culture some of the bacteria we find on ourselves, for example I've taken a toothpick and taken some of the plaque between my teeth and then I plated on to an agar plate, then I've taken those bacteria and stained them put them under the microscope to see what's there.

Chris - So who is the most germ infested pathologist in the department as far as we can tell? Is that you?

Gillian - Yes that honour definitely goes to me, we found some pretty interesting bugs lurking in my mouth; there were some fusobacterium, which are these long, branching bacteria, we also found some streptococci - often those cause things like sore throat but some streptococci are actually quite good for us and protect us from bad bugs.

Chris - You don't look ill. You don't look germ infested, so how can you have all these bugs flourishing on you and in you and yet not be unwell?

Gillian - They're actually very important for us to help prevent bad bacteria from getting a foothold on our epithelial surfaces. They colonise these surface and prevent the bad bacteria from being able to stick there and they can also produce toxins against these bad bacteria which kill them.

Chris - How do these bugs get about?

Gillian - If we go over and have a look through this microscope over here, we've got some lab E. Coli K12, these are motile bacteria. You can see them moving about quite rapidly, now these bugs have these amazing rotary nano machines called flagella, they're long propellers which extend from the bacterial cell surface and they rotate at amazingly high speeds - up to 60 000 rpm.

Chris - I don't mean to insult bacteria, but they're not known for their intelligence. So how do they know which way to swim?

Gillian - Actually bacteria are quite intelligent they have a memory and they can sense their environment by tasting the chemicals in it. They can remember what their environment was like a second ago and make a decision as to whether their life is getting better, or whether its getting worse. They can change their direction so that they travel to a better place, maybe one with more nutrients.

Chris - Gillian Fraser who by her own admission is the most germ-infested member of the pathology department. Now whilst I was getting up close and personal with E. coli, Naked Scientist Meera Senthilingam got wind of a tasty demonstration which was taking place in the Chemistry Department.

Meera - Apparently over at chemistry in Action, they're making ice cream with liquid nitrogen as one of the demonstrations. This method is supposed to give an absolutely delicious result so I'm off to see if I can get my hands on some.

Chemist - so what we're going to do here is make ice cream, we put in our three ice cream ingredients. Firstly the cream, then some milk and finally in my mind the most important ingredient - the sugar. So if you're making ice cream in a factory at home, the way you would do it is to put it in a normal commercial freezer which would be about -25 and you'd stir it as it froze. We don't have a commercial freezer and we also don't have the several hours that it takes to do that, so what we're going to use is liquid nitrogen. The reason ice cream is so tasty is because the sugar dissolves in the water in the milk and that gets frozen into little ice crystals. You can't feel these ice crystals because they're so small and they're surrounded by the fat from the milk and when you put them in your mouth they feel creamy. As the fat gets digested by the enzymes in your mouth it releases the ice crystals and the sugar hits you - Bam! - on your tongue. So as Nitrogen boils off its drawing its energy from the cream which is hotter than it, so its cooling the cream down as it boils off. Does that look like ice cream to you?

Audience - Yes!

Chemist - Ok, lets serve it up.

Meera - So I'm here with Simon and he's going to explain why ice cream tastes better when you make it with liquid Nitrogen.

Simon - When you taste ice cream you're tasting the texture and the grain size of the ice crystals . So if you freeze it really quickly using something at -178 degrees Celsius, you get much, much smaller crystals and so it doesn't taste as grainy.

 Meera - What are your names?

Lawrence - Lawrence

Isobel - Isobel

Meera - So what did you think?

Lawrence - I thought that the smoke coming off it was really mystifying, it was very interesting.

Isobel - Its really nice, its nice and creamy.

Meera - Well I thought it was delicious so I'm off in search of the technician to see if I can persuade him to let me take some liquid Nitrogen home.

Chris - Which proves another scientific theory - that you can always trust the girls to track down the food, especially if it involves ice cream or chocolate. Also taking place on Saturday was a presentation by Marc Abrahams the guy who founded the Ig Nobel prizes. Unlike their more auspicious namesakes they're awarded for scientific endeavours that make people laugh then think. Previous winners included a team of doctors who showed that people living near radio stations playing an above average amount of country music are much more likely to kill themselves on average and another study which sought to confirm the myth that belly button fluff is always blue. Ben Valsler went along to see what visitors thought of the Ig Noble concept.

Marc - Most prizes are for the very best of something or the very worst of something, best or worst doesn't matter for the Ig Nobel prizes. Important or worthless, that too doesn't matter. All that matters is that you've done something that first makes people laugh and then makes them think

Ben - Why is it that you've decided to come to the Ig Nobel prize show?

Man 1 - We've actually seen it before a couple of years ago and were really entertained. So we came to see it again and see if there's anything new.

Man 2 - Because I believe it can be quite amusing.

Man 3 - The idea of joke science is appealing to me. I'm looking forward to this.

Marc - The Ig Nobel prizes are given every year - we started doing this in 1991. we give ten of these a year, they're all about things that first make people laugh, then make people think. The Ig Nobel literature prize is awarded to Daniel Oppenheimer, for his report called "Consequences of erudite vernacular utilised irrespective of necessity - problems with using long words needlessly." The Ig Nobel medicine prize was awarded to Dr Francis Fesmire of Tenesse for his medical case report called "Termination of intractable hiccups with digital rectal massage." Is there anyone here who needs this concept clarified? Is there anyone here who has hiccups at the moment?

Ben - Do you think we're a bit too serious about science?

Man 4 - Yeah I think we are quite a bit of the time. I think this is a good example of how it should be.

Woman 1 - Oh yes.

Ben - So its nice to see a light-hearted approach in something like this?

Woman 2 - Oh yes definitely! Having done a PhD people take it much to seriously.

Chris - I should think that just the thought of a digital rectal exam is enough to cure most cases of hiccups. That was Ben Valsler finding out about the Ig Nobel prizes. Now someone who is clearly enjoying the festival very much is the University's Vice-Chancellor Professor Alison Richard.

Alison - I think that the Cambridge Science Festival this year is brilliant. But then of course its brilliant every year and how do I know that? You just walk around and look at the faces, the kids are totally intent, its also the volunteers who are completely intent talking to the kids; there's just an engagement - complicated things are made simple and explicable, even people like me imagine for a brief moment that you actually understand some of this stuff. I have a question for you because I've been failing to get the answers right on many questions this morning, do you know how many bones there are in the human body?

Chris - Adult or baby?

Alison - Adult.

Chris - 206.

Alison - Oh, oh, oh Naked Scientist you know it all! One of the other answers was 348, now I'm a biological anthropologist and I got the answer wrong so its never too late to learn and I think that's the message for the grown ups here. You can always learn more.

Chris - I can't tell you how relieve I am that I could actually answer that question because my cred was surfing on that.

Alison - Brilliant, that's brilliant Naked Scientist, I'm impressed.

Chris - Now what's this very interesting, colourful thing?

Alison - This is the structure of DNA its the double helix, its also a kind of molecular origami. I folded paper to make this. It hard to describe if you can't see it but I'm very proud of it and its going to go home and sit on my mantle piece. Its fun to make it and to me this is the embodiment of this festival - that its taking very complex ideas turning them into something physical that you can actually do and take away and think about and that's great.

Chris - You must have quite a collection of these because last year you were walking about with a giant pink balloon that you were telling me was some salmonella.

Alison - It was not a giant pink balloon at all - it was a bacterium, I've forgotten what the species was but it was definitely a bacterium. The year before that I built a robot, maybe you don't remember but I still have that - my robot car, its great.

Chris - Where are you heading off to next?

Alison - Now I'm off to the University centre where there is a crane construction challenge. I've no idea what that means but I'll go and find out.

Chris - Cambridge University's Vice Chancellor Alison Richard enjoying the Cambridge Science Festival yesterday. Its the country's largest free science festival. All the events and exhibitions are continuing all this week and if you want to go along there's plenty to go and see. There's another big "Science on Saturday" in a week's time and all the details are on their website, that's

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