New role on the Live Science Team!

It’s been a whirlwind month, with research proposals, interviews, filming and all sorts of craziness, but I am SO EXCITED to have been offered a new job as Live Science Team Member in At-Bristol!

excited.gif

I began my new role a few days ago along with 3 other lovely sci-sisters – we’ve been busy with training – learning everyone’s names, the layout of the building, evacuation plans – but wait, what about the science?!
I don’t jump straight into learning the programmes quite yet – but I do get other exciting things, like a photo-shoot for the website and even my own radio number (is it sad that excites me?!)

Image may contain: 2 people, sunglasses, night and indoor
The new Limas (our radio code!) getting a treat in the planetarium

Everyone has been incredibly welcoming and friendly and it makes it easy to see why so many people stay in the organisation for years – I can’t wait to learn from all the amazing other team members and get stuck in – especially the planetarium shows!

Image result for at bristol planetarium
Oooooo. Pretty.

The team is incredibly diverse – from palaeontologists, to marine biologists, to mathematicians – I’m so keen to soak up everyone’s knowledge and get an insight into their passions – and hopefully share mine too!

Our first few days included eating Marmite on Pringles, making laser cut shadows of ourselves and flying paper helicopters over the air table in the Tinkering Space. The best part is – everyday is going to be just as varied. I love the chance to unleash my creativity in a place that encourages experimentation and curiosity – and I can’t wait to spark that fire in someone else.

Exciting times ahead!

 

Bristol March for Science

On the 22nd April (Earth Day) thousands of Bristol supporters of science – from students, to famous names from science and television – will take to the streets to add their voices to a worldwide movement of marches in celebration of the vital role scientific evidence plays in our everyday lives.

Scientific study underpins the foundations of the world, yet, it is under attack across the globe, especially by those who have the power to change its influence. In a time when experts and evidence are being pushed aside, we must stand in solidarity to protect the use of scientific evidence in areas such as climate change and medical and environmental policy, and defend those working or studying in scientific fields such as research, medicine, engineering or technology. Budget cuts, censorship of researchers, disappearing datasets and threats to dismantle government agencies harm us all, putting our health, food, air, water, climate and jobs at risk. It is time for people who support science to take a public stand and be counted.

Bristol is a long-established centre of scientific excellence, home to major universities, industry and the biggest hub for wildlife filmmaking in the world. On the 22nd April, Bristolians will march in recognition of both the community’s commitment to protecting these credentials and the important role the city has carved in the scientific arena. Renowned for its creativity, Bristol is a truly special place where the arts and sciences meet and the rare joining of scientific and artistic minds seems to be more commonplace in our city that most. However, it is this synergy of disciplines that has real potential to impact UK science. Speaking of this, Anna Starkey, Creative Director of At-Bristol, says “Good science needs what Bristol offers as a city – connected people asking questions, sharing ideas, who are not afraid to be playful and experiment in the unknown.”

All students should have the opportunity for a quality science education and the march is a great opportunity to communicate a positive message to the public and public officials about the value and power of science, engineering and technology. The March for Science gives students the opportunity to step outside our universities and help inform all citizens about the value and importance of science and science education. The event has been designed to bring people of all ages in Bristol together to stand up for science. There will be stands and activities for children and adults alike in the Millennium Square, alongside prizes for the best banners – making it a fun but impactful day for families and for the future of their children.

We ask you to join us – it is time to stand up for and support the proper funding of scientific research, and demand the use of evidence to make informed decisions and policies. Prizes for best banners – science puns encouraged!

For more information, visit the Facebook event: http://bit.ly/ScienceMarchBRS
Twitter: @ScienceMarchBRS

Studying Science Communication

I started my MSc in Science Communication back in September 2016 and am absolutely loving it – it’s been a hell of a ride so far and I’ve met some incredible people along the way! I wanted to start writing about my experiences on the course, especially since I’m starting my final year project soon so feel a bit silly for not starting this back in September!

Since starting I’ve gone to festivals, visited conferences, been on the radio and most recently, made a short film – I’ve learn an incredible amount and want to write and share everything I’m doing on my blog, so this new ‘Science Communication’ page will be where you can read all about my adventures in scicomm!

Exciting things coming soon!
For now, you can follow me on Twitter @scicomm_tay

NASA’s ‘Holy-grail’: Solar system with seven Earth-like planets found

There have been many discoveries of potentially habitable planets orbiting stars other than our own over the last few years. Now things are getting even more exciting. Scientists have documented a star surrounded by seven Earth-like planets – several of which would be at the right temperature for liquid water, and potentially life, to exist.

But is it possible to know anything about what these planets are like beyond simple measures such as temperature and mass? There may indeed be several factors that can give us a clue – let’s take a look at what planetary processes we might expect to find there.

The seven planets orbit an ‘ultracool dwarf‘ a mere 39 light years away. However, with a mass of only 8% of our sun’s and shining less than 0.1% as brightly, it is at the small, faint end of the ‘red dwarf‘ star type, barely able to power itself by nuclear fusion.

Telling transits

In 2010, a group of scientists began monitoring the closest dwarf stars using a robotic telescope in Chile called TRAPPIST (the Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope). They were hoping to find periodic dips in brightness caused by a planet passing in front of the star, cutting out part of its light (a transit). In 2016, they found their first candidate: an ultracool dwarf.

They named this star TRAPPIST-1 and began to study it with more powerful telescopes, including NASA’s Spitzer space telescope. This revealed a total of seven transiting exoplanets there.

  • The amount of light blocked out by each exoplanet during a transit reveals its size
  • The repeat frequency reveals each exoplanet’s orbit time
  • From this, the laws of gravity allow us to work out its distance from the star.

Amazingly, the planets of TRAPPIST-1 span only a narrow range of sizes, not much different to Earth, and are all much closer to their star than Earth is to the sun. However, TRAPPIST-1 is so faint that even its innermost planet may be just cool enough for liquid water to exist on its surface, while its outermost planet may be just warm enough to avoid global freezing.

This artist’s conception shows what the seven planets of TRAPPIST-1 may look like, based on available data about their sizes, masses and distances from the star. NASA/JPL-Caltech

The slight irregularities in transit times can be attributed to neighbouring exoplanets influencing each others’ orbits. This suggest that most of the family are Earth-like in their density and not just their size. There is no way to be sure yet how much water most of them have, if any. Similarly, it’s hard to know whether any resemblance to Earth extends as far as having plate tectonics and a distinction between oceanic and continental crust like Earth.

Seeds of life?

With most or maybe all of its seven known planets in the not-too-hot, not-too-cold ‘Goldilocks zone‘ around the star, TRAPPIST-1 offers the intriguing prospect of several Earth-like planets capable of hosting Earth-like life around the same star.

TRAPPIST-1 is as young as ultracool dwarfs go, maybe only half a billion years old. Thanks to the frugal rate at which it uses its nuclear fuel it has a further 10 trillion years left to run (a thousand times longer than the sun). On Earth, it took two billion years to go from microbes to multi-cellular organisms and another billion years for intelligence to emerge. So while we may not expect advanced civilisations to exist on the TRAPPIST-1 planets, some simple lifeforms may be in the works or already exist.

TRAPPIST-1 and its planets are sure to be among the prime targets for the James Webb Space Telescope, likely to begin operations in 2019. This should be able to detect the presence of any atmosphere about a planet whilst it is in transit across the star and maybe even reveal whether atmospheric composition seems to have been modified by living processes. Until then however, all we can do is wait…

Fishy on a plastic dishy

Do you love your seafood? Along with your favourite portion of fish, you might also be eating up to 11,000 tiny pieces of plastic every year, with dozens of those becoming embedded in your tissues.

Microplastics are extremely tiny pieces of plastic debris that end up in our oceans from the disposal of consumer products and industrial waste. We dump huge amounts of plastic waste into the ocean every year, much of it ending up as microplastic.

There are more than five trillion pieces of microplastic in the world’s oceans and the equivalent of one rubbish truck of plastic waste gets added to the sea every minute.

Worringly, studies have found that high concentrations of these plastics stunts the growth of marine life and alters their feeding habits, leading them to prefer eating the plastic over their natural food.

Researchers from the University of Ghent in Belgium believe that microplastics accumulate in the body over time and could be a long term health risk. The amount of plastic absorbed will only get worse as pollution in the oceans increases.

Dr Colin Janssen, who led the research, said the presence of plastic particles in the body was ‘a concern’.

Research has established that they do enter our bodies and can stay there for a while, but where do they go? Are they encapsulated by tissue and forgotten about by the body or are they causing inflammation? Are chemicals leaching out of these plastics and causing toxicity? We simply do not know the answers yet, which is why current research into their properties is so important.

A change of focus

Hi everyone! 

This is a very quick and more of a reflective post to explain some of the changes I’ll be making to my blog in a few weeks time. 

When I first started this blog, I didn’t really have a clear direction of what to do with it – I knew I just wanted to practice my writing and that was all. I don’t recommend this approach, and here’s why:

  • I didn’t have a flow. Most blogs follow a specific theme or focus to talk about, with individual sections being closely related. Mine wasn’t and it seemed too random. 
  • I didn’t establish a style.  Many of my posts were on completely unrelated topics and too far in between for me to practice writing regularly on a familiar area. 
  • I didn’t know what was coming next. Each post I made was individually researched whenever I had the time to write, instead of forming a coherent string of posts. This is fine if you can manage it and organise each collection of posts around a certain topic, but this quickly got too time consuming for me. 

So I’ll still be writing, but my main focus from now on will be to bring in the other skills I’m learning about in my MSc, namely creating videos. I hope to have a fully functioning YouTube channel soon with some fun and simple science experiments to do at home and in the classroom. 

Why experiments? 

From my schools outreach work I’ve been developing a lot of my presenting skills and also have lots of ideas for experiments that I’d like to share with a wider audience. I also would like more presenting experience in general, and this will help me evidence that on social media. 

Thanks for reading this if you did, and I hope you stick around for the first lot of experiment videos, coming soon! 

What will Trump mean for science?

In a shocking twist of events, Donald J. Trump has been elected as the next president of the United States after a long and divisive campaign in which science was rarely mentioned. Many scientists now have to consider what a Trump administration will mean for their work and are understandably worried at the outlook.

Trump will be the first- anti-science president we have ever had. As a young graduate pursuing a career in science communication, the possibly severe consequences are extremely worrying. With an already crumbling scientific infrastructure in the US, funding for science will only take a massive hit, with the US being less equipped to recruit the world leaders on scientific issues to progress their fields of study.

Trumping on the planet

Chief among many concerns in the scientific community are Trump’s views on climate change. There’s no way around it. Donald Trump is going to be a disaster for the planet. As a candidate, Trump vowed to ‘cancel’ the Paris climate agreement that was signed earlier this year and pledged to eliminate environmental regulations. He called global warming a Chinese hoax. He wants to scrap all major regulations put in place by President Obama to reduce US carbon dioxide emissions, including the Clean Power Plan. He  wants to repeal all federal spending on clean, sustainable energy sources. He wants to pull the United States out of the Paris climate deal altogether and has also hinted at wanting to get rid of the Environmental Protection Agency altogether.

 

So what happens if Trump gets his way? It’s unlikely he’ll stop the progression of renewable energy whatsoever, but his proposals are likely to increase CO2 emisions: Lux Research estimated Trump’s policies would lead to an extra 3.4 billion tons of CO2 emitted:

There is now real concern in the scientific community what it might mean that the public scientific method isn’t embraced by Trump and how he may view other science in other fields.

Funding scientific research

Although Trump has pledged to cut federal spending, he hasn’t explained how this will affect funding for scientific research. The majority of academic researchers rely on grants from government agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. It means for a lot of early research scientists, there is a lot of uncertainty facing their careers and what a reduction in funding would mean for their ability to have a career as a scientist.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science is the country’s largest society of scientific researchers and have been urging Trump to appoint a respected scientist as his next science adviser. This would allow them to make major scientific issues, such as climate change and research investment a central part of Trump’s agenda.

However, one thing to consider is how research will be affected in terms of skilled scientists immigrating to the US for work or education. They would still be welcome, but would they want to go?

University outreach – in a box!

This blog has been adapted from the University of the West of England (UWE) Science Communication Unit (SCU) blog, where I study an MSc in Science Communication and also work with the BoxEd team, delivering schools outreach. If you’d like to know more about the unit, please click here.

The Science Communication Unit (SCU) at UWE has been involved in developing an ambitious new outreach programme for secondary schools in the region called BoxEd. We’ve worked with over 4,000 school pupils in the last 18 months, finding tardigrades, hacking robots and solving murder mysteries with science, technology, engineering and maths.

stem-roadshow-tweetThe idea behind the project is not only to engage local communities and raise pupil aspirations. Our plan is to refocus outreach within the university so that it no longer competes with student learning or research time, but instead functions to develop undergraduate skills and to showcase UWE’s cutting edge research.

The outreach activities are developed by specialists, but then led by undergraduate students and student interns, who develop confidence and skills. UWE Bristol students can use their outreach activities to count towards their UWE Futures Award, and in some degree courses we are looking at ways that outreach projects can provide credit and supplement degree modules. Researchers can use the activities to increase their research impact and share their work with internal and external audiences – getting students excited about research through explaining it to young people. Enabling students to lead outreach – including Science Communication Masters and Postgraduate Certificate students – means that the university delivers more activities, reaching more schools and giving more school pupils the chance to participate.

bradley-stoke-science-tweet

The brainchild of UWE Bristol staff Mandy Bancroft and John Lanham, the development stages of the project have been led by Debbie Lewis and Corra Boushel from the Faculty for Health and Applied Science and the Science Communication Unit with support from Laura Fogg Rogers. The project is now being expanded into a university-wide strategy with cross-faculty support to cover all subject areas, not only STEM.

Katherine Bourne is another student in the SCU, studying towards a PGCert in Science Communication whilst also working on the BoxEd project. She has been involved with promoting BoxEd to current MSc students who will develop new activities to go into schools as part of their Science in Public Spaces module, run by Emma Weitkamp and Erik Stengler. Special thanks go to Kath, as well as to Jack Bevan, a graduate intern also employed on the project and the Student Ambassadors involved with delivering the sessions in schools.

Coulrophobia: the scary clown craze

With an already eventful year full of horrifying events, the “scary clown” craze may be the most haunting yet in the run up to Halloween. As the creepy craze spreads across the UK, clown-related phone calls to police forces are happening more than ever. We’ve already accepted clowns are scary  – but why?

In theory, clowns are supposed to be figures of fun and amusement, using slapstick humour to provoke laughter, not screams and cold sweats. Big smiley faces, party tricks and colourful face paint are not typically associated with intense fears. However, when combined in the form of a clown, they regularly cause the exact opposite reaction to the intended – coulrophobia – an intense fear of clowns.

Not-so-quite human

creepy-dolls-9
It’s the dead look in their eyes…

The reasons for this fear of gaudy, painted clowns is typically attributed to their tendency to set off negative reactions that occur in our brains, namely the ‘uncanny valley’ effect. Remember that clowns are still people – under all that paint and ruffle, they have human bodies and faces – but this is exactly why they freak us out. The ‘uncanny valley’ effect is a phenomenon where things that look human but aren’t quite there look incredibly unsettling to us. This is why those Victorian dolls with the glazed porcelain eyes and Ventriloquist dummies share the same ‘scary’ reputation as clowns do. A pair of googly eyes on a postbox makes for some rather humorous shenanigans but a highly realistic android with an almost-but-not-quite-identical face to that of a real human is super creepy.

One theory is that they make us think of corpses and death (a dead face almost looks like a normal face but ‘behaves’ differently) which should be avoided due to the risk of illness and danger. Whatever the underlying cause, human faces that deviate from normal looks upset us, and clown faces differ in very elaborate ways – the painted on smiles which never match their actual expression, exaggerated eyes and gaudy colours combine to create an unsettling human-like face.

Body shape is also another thing that we, as humans, pay a lot of attention and glean an incredible amount of information from. We are sensitive to things such as posture, stance and gait, with clowns throwing all sense out of the window again with their oversized gestures and excessive tumbling.

Unpredictability of clowns

The whole point of clowns is that they do things which argue with normal behaviour – but unlucky for us, unpredictability is something that causes distrust, apprehension and anxiety in humans. Think about the drunk in the middle of the street at night, yelling and randomly approaching you – these figures in society are ignored and snubbed by those around them because they clearly aren’t conforming to societal norms and are perceived as a possible threat.

This reaction can be even worse if we’re in a social context, as clowns usually are. Humans genuinely fear  being judged and mocked by others, which is why many people actively avoid sitting in the front row at comedy gigs – they don’t want to be spoken to, addressed or possibly ridiculed. This can be scary enough in it’s own right, but add all the upsetting qualities of a clown and you have a potent ingredient for a fear response.

Cultural clowns are scary

679816
Why so scary?

Even without all this, the scary-clown stereotype is so entrenched in our society that it’s basically the norm, so clowns begin with a disadvantage anyway. The most famous cultural examples of clowns, such as The Joker, are scary and villainous, more likely to become known for murder than slapstick comedy. Much of modern media arguably feeds into our unwarranted fear of clowns and our idiot brains aren’t equipped to deal rationally with these characters.

If you’ve had first-hand experience of the craze and want to share your survival story, or just want to share your opinions, please leave a comment below!