PETER VUKUSIC, EXETER UNIVERSITY
The Royal Society's Summer Science Exhibition 2011 is in full swing. The annual showcase of all things scientific kicked off on July 5th and runs until July 10th at the Royal Society's headquarters in central London. This year's events feature leading researchers across the disciplines, from physicists talking about energy harvesting and quantum computing to oceanographers discussing the importance of plankton and zoologists presenting research on how bats might impact public health. Here's a look at just a few of the talks that caught our eye.
A few years ago, physicist Ullrich Steiner of the University of Cambridge got an unusual request from Beverly Glover in the university’s plant sciences department. She wanted Steiner and his colleagues to build plastic replicas of the strange microscopic textures they had noticed on flower petals so she and her team could begin to determine their function by studying how captive honey bees responded to the models.
Happy to oblige, Steiner provided Glover with the materials she requested, and the researchers watched eagerly as Glover put her bees to the test. Strangely, the bees appeared to be able to recognize the structures without landing on them, suggesting that the microscopic patterns were somehow visible to the insects. Sure enough, when the researchers provided the bees with plastic “flowers” covered in different structural patterns, and stocked one with a sugar solution and the other with quinine, a bad-tasting crystalline alkaloid, the bees quickly learned to distinguish the good flowers from the bad, visiting the sugar-yielding variety significantly more often.
The insects were able to tell the difference, the researchers learned, because the structures appeared as different colors to the bees, much like the iridescent glow of some butterfly wings, which is caused by light scattering off of intricate scales on their surface. “There are very few examples in the literature of structural colors in plants,” Steiner said. “We discovered that structural colors in plants are probably much more widespread than people had thought before.” In 2009, he and his colleagues published evidence of such structural colors in tulips and hibiscus flowers, and have since identified similar patterns in other flowers, such as buttercups.
At their exhibit at the Summer Science Exhibition, the researchers are recreating their bee experiments for visitors, who will have the opportunity to build their own structural colors, using physical building blocks and computer software to convert the macroscopic constructions into the colors that would be produced by those same patterns on a much smaller scale. Visitors can also play with small pieces of rubber designed by Steiner's group to project iridescent colors, a quality that could one day be used as security tags on software, money, or ID cards, according to the physicist. “By making labels using these materials, we could endow an object with an optical marker that is very distinctive but cannot easily be copied,” Steiner said, noting that they have already been approached by potentially interested buyers of the technology.
Blood loss is the major cause of death following severe trauma, and researchers at the Royal London Hospital are working to stem this grim trend. Dan Frith, a trauma registrar and researcher at the William Harvey Research Institute, said that the Royal London Hospital alone treats about 1,800 trauma victims each year, and about a quarter of those suffer a sudden failure in normal clotting function. Frith’s team has identified a blood protein, Activated Protein C, responsible for this clotting dysfunction, and are developing drugs that can be administered at the scene of injury.
Dan Frith, trauma registrar and researcher at the Royal London Hospital and William Harvey Research Institute tells Richard Grant about research into blood transfusion products, at his exhibit at the Royal Society's Summer Science Exhibition.
The exhibition features a game designed by Frith, based on the popular KerPlunk game, in which visitors can build a blood “clot” and then remove “fibrin” until the clot dissolves and stuffed blood cells fall through. In their exhibit, they also demonstrate how techniques developed on the battlefield can save civilian lives and explain how modern blood transfusion techniques reduce trauma mortality. Perhaps just as importantly, Frith is interested in raising awareness of trauma and its treatment, encouraging people to think of it as a disease rather a random event. His colleague, registrar and Royal London Hospital research fellow Joanna Manson says that severe trauma can happen to anybody, “not just scallywags.”
The Ocean Drifters exhibit features a 360-degree movie that dives into the life of marine plankton. With the familiar voice of Sir David Attenborough dishing out unique tidbits of information, astonishing images of the tiny animals at 4,000 times their usual size (some are, in real life, smaller than the width of a human hair), and a brand new musical score, the 15-minute film explores what plankton are, how they influence life around the globe, and how climate change is affecting them. The accomplishments of the unassuming marine organisms include building the white cliffs of Dover, providing vast stores of hydrocarbons that humans mine and burn for fuel, and achieving about 50 percent of the earth’s photosynthetic activities at any given time.
The film, "Ocean Drifters, a secret world beneath the waves," is based on a book of the same name, written by Richard Kirby of Plymouth University, who likes to photograph the plankton he studies. "Plankton are hugely important and this exhibition is to try and help inform people about them,” Kirby said in a press release. "Most people are unaware of their presence, but if you have been swimming in the sea you will have almost certainly have swallowed them.”
A 75-cent strip of bamboo could stop bats from infecting humans with viruses while fetching farmers a higher price for their palm sap. Andrew Cunningham from the Zoological Society of London and Olivier Restif from the University of Cambridge study fruit bats and how the viruses they carry can infect humans and other animals. At the Summer Science Exhibition they presented data on a project they're working on in Bangladesh, where fruit bats carry the deadly Nipah virus, which causes respiratory failure and encephalitis in humans. Using infrared cameras, Cunningham and Restif captured images of the bats drinking from palm sap jugs, which local farmers use to collect a sweet, syrupy drink. By placing a bamboo screen over the palm taps, the bats cannot feed on the sap, preventing transmission of the virus to humans. Cunningham and his team are now looking to see if this simple intervention prevents outbreaks of Nipah virus.
Olivier Restif of the University of Cambridge talks to Richard Grant about the games he's brought to the Royal Society's Summer Science Exhibition--finding radio-tagged bats and sequence contig alignment.
Visitors to the exhibition can use a telemetry apparatus to find radio-tagged toy bats in the building, and play a sequence alignment game to see how scientists identify different viruses from fruit bat populations.
How people recognize faces and interpret expressions of emotion and intent is a question that continues to puzzle researchers. And biologists aren't the only ones who are interested in learning more about this complex area of neuroscience—robotics researchers are also keen to understand how people do what they do, so they can create robots that do the same. “Human beings use an understanding of facial expressions all the time to help us communicate better,” Peter McOwan of the School of Electronic Engineering and Computer Science at Queen Mary, University of London said in an email to The Scientist. “We're doing this research to create new robot technologies that interact with us in the most natural way possible.”
At the Summer Science Exhibition, McOwan and his colleagues are presenting data and providing interactive displays that give visitors the opportunity to see if a computer can detect their smiles. The researchers are also offering an online game that tests people’s ability to determine what the robot is “thinking.”
“We need to give [robots] the ability to understand our facial expressions and also for them to be able to create expressive faces, so humans have an understanding of the robot's internal state,” McOwan said. “This way, robots and humans can communicate in a socially meaningful way.”
Researchers are developing tiny electronic chips that signal directly to retinal cells, and spectacles that recognize their surroundings to help the visually impaired. Stephen Hicks from the University of Oxford is developing such computer-aided devices help people with only a small amount of vision make sense of their surroundings and increase their independence. His unique pair of glasses has two lots of 64 very bright LEDs, a camera that recognizes everyday objects, and a computer that does real-time visual processing. The computer translates the objects into patterns displayed by the LEDs, which the legally-blind user can see and interpret.
Hicks said he’s always been interested in how to make computers interact with humans to improve our senses. It’s “partly a science fiction project,” he said, and partly an experiment to make a low-cost intervention to help people. Visitors to the Artificial Sight exhibit can experience a simulation of Hicks' glasses in action.
The Royal Society's Summer Science Exhibition 2011, to which entry is free, has been open to the public since July 5th and runs through July 10th. You can get more information about the exhibits at the Royal Society website, and check out an exclusive interview with Nobel Laureate Paul Nurse, in which the renowned geneticist discusses the festival, over at the Naturally Selected blog