European City of Science week

This week sees Manchester host several events as Science in the City: part of celebrating Manchester as the European City of Science 2016. St Ann’s Square featured the Allotment of the Future. Several of the issues that I’d seen at the Science Gallery in Dublin also featured here, with more on hydroponics and innovations to help feed the masses in the future. There were also two cross sections of soil types and what looked at a brief glance like a giant hydrangea.


Algae tanks in St Ann’s Square

The Allotment of the Future is definitely worth looking at if you happen to be in Manchester City Centre this week, and there are plenty of events going on round the city, including a Science Meets Poetry event at the John Rylands Library on Tuesday 26th July 2016.



Innovation in the field(s)

I recently visited the Field Test Exhibition in the Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin.  The exhibition concentrated on innovations and issues in  agriculture and was spread over two floors. The exhibits were varied, with some involving interaction and others that were displays of information. Examples include the reuse of coffee grinds to grow oyster mushrooms, recordings of insect noises and Lullaby Milk– where the cows are milked before dawn to enhance the amount of melatonin in the milk- which was being marketed as an aid to natural sleep.  There were plenty members of staff on hand to answer questions about the exhibits.

Bees were featured more than once, which makes sense since the survival of bees is currently a major issue.  Bees are in danger from human caused threats such as pesticide and if they die humans will be likely to follow shortly after from the disruption to our food supplies.  One third of our food is pollination dependant so it’s unsurprising that several of the Field Test items focused on bees. Robobees are tiny lightweight robotic insects developed at Harvard that have a number of potential applications, including the pollination of fields. One of the other innovations was referred to as Tinder for Bees, which allows members of the public to help identify possible threats to the hive by classifying images from monitoring devices installed in hives.  These will then be used to form algorithms which will in turn help identify threats to automatically.


One of the exhibits displayed information about seed banks and how certain hybrids can only be bought from suppliers as their own seeds don’t breed true.There was also a seed bank vending machine, which issued a mystery seed pack for a Euro. Each of the seeds in the vending machine came with a slip of paper explaining more about the seeds enclosed.

Outside the gallery was the Loci food lab- I was asked to choose three words to define what key features I preferred my food to have, and a specially designed bite was provided according to my choices. (Sadly, since I’m not in the habit of posting pictures of my lunch on social media, I ate it before it occurred to me to take a photo.)  The taste was interesting and came with a print out of my personalised menu, along with a breakdown of how many other people had visited the lab (over 6000) and how many others had chosen the same attributes as me. By far the most popular keyword was “delicious” although, as the person assembling the bite admitted, delicious can mean very different things to different people.

Field Test is definitely worth a visit if you happen to be in Dublin. If not you can read more about the exhibits here.

Science in the city

Back in September I wrote about the wonderful Welcome Week lecture by Danielle George. During it she mentioned that Manchester is to be the European City of Science in 2016.

I recommend a look at their website- it is crammed to the gills with information about Manchester’s past innovators and inventors, the upcoming science events (you don’t have to wait till 2016, some of them are happening now) and information on how you can get involved. You can also sign up for the newsletter find out how to follow them on a multitude of social media sites.

Find out more at


Lecture: “Engineered in your Imagination”

Yesterday I attended the Welcome Week Distinguished Lecture on “Engineered in your Imagination” by Danielle George, Professor in Radio Frequency Engineering and Dean of Teaching and Learning.

Kicking off with a floppy disc drive chorus playing the Batman theme tune, Professor George talked us through some of her previous projects and how our technology is considered both disposable and a closed box. She challenged us, a lecture hall mainly filled by engineering students, to start considering what we can do with our old technology rather than throwing it away.

She talked about how she ended up doing her first degree in Astrophysics but had since realised that the two subjects she loved, Maths + Physics = Engineering and moreover that How + Why = Engineering. She talked to us about light and wireless technology and about pushing the limits with basic technology. For example, pushing the boundaries with potatoes and apples or her own experience calling the International Space Station using her smartphone as part of the 2014 Royal Institution‘s Christmas Lectures.

Most of this talk focused on challenges: the 14 Grand Challenges of Engineering, the challenges she has worked on, the challenges she has given to her students- which included the floppy drive re-purposing- and the challenges she gave to us as an audience. She suggested that we try to use an old phone or LEDs to experiment with, demonstrating how a 36 x 36 grid of LEDs could be rigged up to perform quite complex displays, even displaying the feed from a web camera.

Engineer 3

Although (unlike the majority of the audience) I am not an engineer, I did start thinking through all the old pieces of broken electronic equipment I have hoarded because I didn’t want to just throw it away because it was ineligible for, or difficult to, recycle. What could I build out of the various old phones, laptop, Game Boy or cassette player I haven’t got organised to take for disposal? Or could I manage to build a member of the robotic orchestra that she invited us to help build as part of Manchester being the city of Euroscience 2016. As she said the only limit on the question “what can I do?” is the questioner’s imagination.

I do think that there is a reluctance amongst people to try to fix or alter products that have been presented to them as finished. Whether it is because we are afraid after years of being told that taking the lid off is invalidating the guarantee, or just that we have become accustomed to alteration being something that someone else does, we don’t do it. While I am happy altering most physical items I tend not to try with electronics- partly because I don’t know where to start and partly because with two bad electric shocks under my belt this is an area I feel it might not be wise for me to dabble in. But maybe it’s time I started finding out more about how to safely re-purpose my obsolete technology. With the number of maker spaces and blogs about how other people have re-purposed things out there there is plenty of support for anyone looking to learn more.

This was an absolutely brilliant lecture that really fired the imagination. I’m really glad that they opened it to staff as well as students and that a colleague drew my attention to it. Professor George’s lecture was a great way to start the new term with a fresh enthusiasm for trying and you can follow her her on Twitter @engineerDG.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to find a potato and some LEDs.

TedX Salford


Yesterday was TedX Salford IV– and I spent all day being dazzled by fascinating, hilarious and thought-provoking presentations. Links to all the speakers mentioned below are available.

After the welcome we kicked off with Brooke Magnanti explaining the history of anonymity. As former call-girl blogger Belle de Jour she discussed both notable examples of anonymity in the past and her personal choice to claim her identity before tabloids claimed it for her.

Massimo Marchiori talked about the “short blanket” effect- where no matter how comfy technology makes things there is always an area where it falls short and your metaphorical feet get cold. An interesting example was that the 1st generation of mobiles- the “brick” phones- had better quality of call sound than those nowadays and that a lot of the technology decisions we make are actually made by our caveman mentality of “just survive”.

Bruce Hood’s talk was on the often secular superstitions we carry over from childhood such as mind/body duality and the doctrine of signatures. It was a really interesting talk and mentioned how western children (who start sleeping apart much earlier than in other cultures) have security blanket toys and imbue them with personality.

Jack Andraka talked about how he created a cheaper, faster, simpler detector for pancreatic cancer while still at school: a funny talk with a serious endnote that pointed out the problems of information access for young scientists when vital articles are held behind pay-walls- creating an information class system where money is necessary for learning.

Jack Sim (aka Mr Toilet) took up the serious subject of sanitation issues with considerable humour. Due to his considerable effort in raising awareness in this field 19 November is World Toilet Day and he noted that we cannot deal with the problem of sanitation in the developing world if we won’t talk about it due to taboo. I also liked his quote that “Death is your ultimate motivator” but most people tweeting focused on his idea that a billionaire is not a person with a billion pounds or dollars but rather the one who has helped a billion people.

Kate Russell was up next talking about how crowdfunding was not “money for nothing” but a real and worthwhile exchange which involved hard work. This talk also included the fun fact that the money for the base of the Statue of Liberty was raised by old-style crowdfunding.

Next, James Glattfelder gave a philosophical talk on the subject of reality and what we can know; Juliet Mitchell talked about war being an “allowed” form of killing which she linked to the “unallowed” killing of our siblings that we experience as toddlers; and Lucy Hawking talked about getting kids interested in science by involving them with narrative that they can identify with.

With lunchtime came the Breakout sessions. I attended Anthony Zboralski’s session on Privacy and Security- a discussion with a Q&A which covered the problem that while we want privacy, it doesn’t really exist and there is no product that guarantees it. Even a guy who’d chosen to use fingerprint identification on his smartphone kept waking up to find it had been used because his son had been pressing his Dad’s finger against the phone while he slept so that the kid could use the phone.

The afternoon kicked off with music from Sarah De Warren, who has a wonderful voice and dealt well with pre-emptive applause from the audience when they thought a song was finished during a pause. Later in the evening, Benjamin Clementine performed several songs with an unusual style.

Noble Peace Prize Winner Tawwakol Karman took the stage next and delivered an inspiring talk on her founding of Women Journalists Without Chains and the role she played in working towards peaceful revolution in Yemen. This was the most moving of all the talks and resulted in considerable applause and standing ovations.

Jay Bregman admitted that he had a hard act to follow and was nervous, but it didn’t really show and his talk on start-ups reaching out to and interacting with those making the regulations that will affect innovations and start-ups.

Robin Ince gave a wonderful, hilarious talk that covered mind envy and the imp of the perverse that drives us to have sudden rapidly suppressed crazy urges to do very, very unwise things. It was perhaps my favourite talk- it was certainly the one I laughed at the most.

Jamie Edwards talked about his experience persuading his school to let him create nuclear fusion in a classroom at the age of thirteen, followed by Sophie Wallace talking about her art project Cliteracy and how no one should have an organ in their body that they are ashamed to talk about.

The final talk of the evening was Anthony Zaboralski’s, which sadly was beset by problems and lacked the energy of the breakout session. The subject was still fascinating and although not the smoothest delivery it was a reminder of the bravery required to get up on the stage in the first place and further, to admit when things aren’t going as planned.

Throughout the day we’d had Ted videos shown on various subjects, including one on the misuse of the word “awesome” – the Great Pyramid is indeed awesome- the sandwich you had at lunch was probably just tasty. She commented that neither was her talk awesome, but reflecting on what I heard at TedX Salford, from a woman who spearheaded a peaceful revolution, from someone who is proud to be called Mr Toilet because it helps spread fight the lack of sanitation killing 1.5 million kids a year, from the school kids making fusion reactors and cancer detectors, yes, I do feel awe at the amazing things people can do. Also a considerable amount of the mind envy that Robin Ince was talking about, but mostly, awe, and thanks, that there is a forum where I can go and hear about what these people have done and are doing.