Faculty of 1000

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Archive for the ‘Culture Friday’ Category

Every picture tells a story

Posted by rpg on 19 March, 2010

Lord Lichfield

One of the great things about doing science, especially if you’re lucky enough to be a cell or structural biologist, is just how gosh-darned pretty it can be. Sometimes, crouched over a microscope or synchrotron hutch late at night (or very early in the morning, with the latter), the sheer prettiness of what I was doing was all that kept me going.

Mercedes BenzStructure of MFP2

The images above are but two of probably hundreds I’ve captured or rendered in my career. Whether they can be called ‘art’ is possibly a matter for the philosophers* but I like ’em. But there is definitely an overlap between science and (visual) art, where pure information becomes something more than that, where the representation acquires meaning or emotional impact of its own. You might know in your heart that this is the first time anyone has ever seen this protein’s structure, or that particular cellular effect, and you will get an emotional as well as intellectual kick out of it; but even someone with no scientific training can look at some of these images and be just as moved.

What we do as scientists has some mechanistic meaning, but it is also inherently pretty. And if you’re not convinced, you should take a look at Creaturecast.

CreatureCast – Footage From The Deep from Casey Dunn on Vimeo.

Creaturecast is produced by the Dunn Lab at Brown University, and showcases particularly interesting and/or beautiful scenes of zoology. It’s a site well worth looking around, especially on a damp Friday afternoon or for a morale boost on a Monday. It’s educational, too: did you know that Emperor Hirohito was a poet and a marine biologist too? Apparently he published (after the Second World War) he published 32 books of plates, that described 23 new species of ascidians, 7 new species of crabs, 8 new species of starfish and 6 new species of pycnogonids. He surveyed the biodiversity of Sagami Bay, and had a special interest in the tiny tentacled sea floor polyps called hydrozoans. He published under the name ‘Hirohito Emperor of Japan’.

And don’t think Creaturecast is simply observation, there’s also original art:

In a similar vein, the website from which I pulled the ‘Snake oil supplement‘ graphic last week has a Facebook group. As, in fact, does the Wellcome Trust, or at least their image collection. Very pretty, go and take a look.
Ingredients for a medical career

Ingredients for a medical career

We’ve been doing a bit of art ourselves. Here’s the Wordle of Callum’s blog post the other day (Callumwordle?):

Wordle: f1000 blog

No prizes for guessing what he was talking about.

Heath Robinson

In these times of budget cuts and recession and financial uncertainty, it helps if you can make the grant money go further. What better way, then, to build your own equipment? A Google software engineer by the name of Neil Fraser wanted to know if a Lava Lamp would work in a high-gravity environment such as Jupiter.

Would the wax still rise to the surface? Would the blobs be smaller and faster?

How to find out? With NASA cutting back on manned spaceflight, the answer wasn’t likely to be forthcoming any time soon, so Neil built a centrifuge to find out. From Meccano. A lava lamp at the end of one arm and a counterweight at the other. Genius.
Lava lamp centrifuge

In his own words, the device is genuinely terrifying: he ran the centrifuge from the (alleged) safety of the next door room. But the experiment worked:

Despite the technical hurdles, the centrifuge performed its job well … the lava lamp continues to operate well at three times the force of gravity. That’s slightly higher than Jupiter’s gravity (2.3 G) and it is equivalent to launching in the Space Shuttle.

Have a great weekend, and remember; be careful out there. You never know when you might come across a scientist building their own equipment, and taking photographs of it.

HeLa Cells from Jenny

Image credit: Jennifer Rohn, UCL

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Dressed to kill

Posted by rpg on 12 March, 2010

As anyone who has worked in a lab will tell you, labcoats are a complete pain in the Gilson until the day they save your Armani suit from being dosed with TEMED, E. coli or radioactivity (and in extreme cases, all three). Invariably made from cheap polycotton with fasteners that don’t and sleeves that dangle in the Coomassie, labcoats make you too hot in summer and provide no warmth in winter. A clean labcoat open at the neck, with a tie underneath can look quite dashing but wearing shorts under one is a protocol for sartorial disaster (not that I speak from experience, dear me no). It’s a hassle taking it off each time you go for a coffee or to the office, and then you have to put it back on or risk taking bugs and anything else you may be working with back home, through crowded Tube stations…not to mention what you do when they finally get too dirty to bear (do you take it home to wash or put it in the institutional laundry, and risk never seeing it again?)

Let’s face it—despite the issues with care and maintenance and discomfort, if you work in a wet lab you have to wear a labcoat, Chow in a Labcoat as doing cell culture naked isn’t usually an option. So why not make them fashionable? Not everyone has the option of hanging onto their precious Howie report-style coat (pure cotton, elasticated cuffs, side-fastening; worn with the top stud rakishly undone) or even being able to get one in the first place.

There are options. You could make your own, or get someone to make one for you.

Or maybe, if you’re within pipetting distance of London, drop into the Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club (no, seriously) next Friday night for a pint of the good stuff and a science fashion show. Le Geek c’est Chic, apparently, and this is what happens when fashion designers meet science. Friday 19th March, Bethnal Green, London. The event is part of the National Science & Engineering week and is organized by the central London branch of the British Science Association. I’ll be the one in the hat.

Geek Chic ad
Still in London, don’t forget Geek Pop, next Thursday at The Miller, London Bridge. Tickets are £2 each and there’s more information on Facebook.

There’s been a bit of a buzz about visualization recently, especially with Google weighing in with its Public Data Explorer (H/T RWW). You can make all sorts of lovely graphs and follow trends by time/and or geography, something that makes people like me look at our ~85,000 evaluations with a curious eye.

In a similar vein, the Information is Beautiful site has a lovely rendering of the scientific evidence for the efficacy (or otherwise) of dietary supplements. The visualization is generated from a Google Docs spreadsheet that contains links to papers reporting the evidence on a particular supplement, which is very cool indeed. Particularly interesting (and possibly arbitrary) is the ‘Worth it line’; below which, presumably, you may as well pour money directly into the Armitage Shanks.

Snake Oil You can change the display to show only the condition(s) you’re interested in, or the class of supplement (enzyme, mineral, vitamin etc.) Hover your mouse over one of the bubbles and watch it pop up with the condition the specific supplement is alleged to treat.

There’s some oddities in there: some supplements appear multiple times, depending on what the evidence is actually for, and there’s the implicit assumption that all the studies are of equal quality (Vitamin C for example is below the ‘worth it’ line, but nearly all studies look at the RDA which prevents scurvy but little else and not the mega doses people like Linus Pauling got excited about). Slightly more weirdly, the size of the bubbles reflects the popularity of the supplement on Google, which I find a bit meaningless. The number of papers or studies would be a better metric, I feel. But what’s really striking is how many are below the ‘worth it’ line, compared with the size of the supplement industry. Snake oil still sells.

Talking of controversial subjects, don’t forget to check out the furore surrounding Medical Hypotheses. Just to remind you, the journal’s publisher, Elsevier, want to make MH a peer-reviewed journal, which would effectively destroy its raison d’être. Get the full story and have your say on our main site.

And finally…it’s competition time! Following on from the success of our last Twitter competition, in which I asked people to summarize a published paper in a tweet, I’d like you to bare the deepest secrets of your soul and tell us the most embarrassing lab- or science-related blunder you’ve ever made (or witnessed). Just to make you feel better about telling the whole world about your most shameful episodes, take comfort that it’s not likely to be in the same league as NASA’s infamous goof with the Mars Climate Orbiter (unless there are any NASA scientists reading this, in which case the joke’s on you). The prize will be a bag of F1000 swag, awarded to whoever makes me laugh the hardest. Don’t forget to tag your posts with #scifubar.

Have a good weekend!

Richard in London

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