Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Ants and information

 Guest post by David Chapman, Royal Society

At first thought the words ‘ants’ and ‘information’ are hardly two peas in a pod. Ants are those tiny creatures that invade your house when the weather gets warm, or sprout wings and descend like a plague on a sunny Sunday. And information; well that’s just stuff, right? The kind of stuff you might want to take in about a particular topic, or the stuff that is manipulated by the media, subsequently regurgitated and accepted as fact.

For scientists though, the two things mean much more. Ants are a group of insects that evolved around 100 million years ago and have since spread to inhabit almost every environment on earth, with an incredibly varied set of over 12,500 classified species. Information, at its very basic level, is anything from which we can learn something; it’s a change within a system; a result of cause and effect from which we can derive data. It’s safe to say that, without information, scientists would need some pretty nifty methods to learn anything.

So how do they relate, and why is this important?

It turns out that ants are pretty good at communicating information within their colonies. Although on an individual level they take part in very simple interactions, the accumulation of thousands of these interactions over time leads to some sophisticated decision making. For example, if an external event is a threat to the colony – flooding, a predator, or a twelve-year-old with a magnifying glass – they quickly organise themselves without ever having to be told what to do; they have evolved the ability to make collective, colony-level decisions with completely decentralised control.

This ability makes them quite useful for scientists to study and Dr Elva Robinson, holder of a Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship, is doing just that. Elva uses Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) (miniature computer chips strapped to individual ants – pictured) to investigate how tasks are allocated among the colony and how they adapt to changes in task need (that child with the magnifying glass is back again).

By studying these behaviours, Elva hopes to ease the very modern problem of information overload. Modern society is completely saturated with information and controlling it in the way we want is a big challenge. By understanding how these ants achieve such a feat, we can tap into 100 million years’ worth of evolutionary nouse and let these masters of information do the hard work for us.

You can find out more about this fascinating topic at Ants and information, Saturday 1 November, 2.30pm, Manchester Museum.

Part of #msf14

Monday, 20 October 2014

Behind the scenes in 3D: Printing the Future

Preparation for the upcoming exhibition opening at the Museum of Science & Industry has involved furious printing behind the scenes at Hobs Studio.  We also asked our scientists and partners to donate any 3D printed items that they used or created as part of their research to be included in the exhibition as part of a "cloud" of beautiful, wonderful and strange 3D printed items.  Here is some of the story behind a few of these items...

Prophabot (left) and Monty (right) made by Amy and Dan Mather
These toys were made by two of our favourite young scientists Amy and Dan Mather, who have worked with us at the Museum of Science & Industry for the Maker Faire as well as previous Festivals. Amy's Prophabot won the student category of The 3D Print Cup this year. You can read more about her experience creating this in her blog.

Lab Equipment
3D printed lab equipment, made in Manchester
This bespoke lab equipment really sums up the potential impact 3D printing could have on the scientific community - think of something, design it and make it yourself. In the past this may have been too difficult, costly or time consuming and so limit the science you were able to do.
The pinch valve is part of a larger assembly for environmental research on the carbon dioxide emission of soils. The interlocking parametric grid and racks are customised for holding laboratory equipment such as petri dishes and sample bottles, and the design parameters can be altered to make holders for different objects. These objects were designed using open-source tools and the design is freely available via http://drelliott.net. A locally manufactured open-source printer was used to print the objects. With thanks to David Elliott, microbial ecologist in the Division of Biology and Conservation Ecology at Manchester Metropolitan University.

The video to the left shows the 3D scan of a Huntsman spider, the print of which is also included in the "cloud" of objects.

3D printed LHCb upgrade detector module

Detector Module
The LHCb experiment is one of the four large experiments at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. Its purpose is to investigate the difference between ordinary matter (stuff that we are made from) and antimatter (same mass as the stuff that we are made from, but oppositely charged).  The experiment will undergo a major upgrade in 2018.  The University of Manchester will construct modules of one of the detectors that is closest to the proton beams (called the VELO: Vertex Locator).  They will measure the positions of particles forty million times every second.  This 3D printed module has been produced by CERN as part of the design studies for these modules.  With thanks to Rob Appleby, accelerator and particle physicist at the University of Manchester.

There are many more fascinating objects included in the exhibition, which opens this Thursday (the install of which has been the backdrop for a couple of our #scienceselfies this week).

3D: Printing the Future opens Thursday at 12pm and will stay at the Museum of Science & Industry until 19th April 2015.

Our #msf14 #scienceselfie with a sneak peek of the install this week, ahead of opening on Thursday.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

The Future is Fracking. Discuss.

Fracking for shale gas has been the game changer in the global exploration of energy. Now, the discovery of shale gas in Lancashire and at Barton Moss has brought the subject right to our doorstep.

Some people see fracking as the answer to the UK’s energy needs, others claim it causes pollution, earthquakes and is a further use of carbon. 

What do you think? 

Discuss, the home of the intellectually curious in Manchester, will be hosting a debate at the Museum of Science & Industry on Tuesday 28th October.  Joining the panel will be Happy Mondays band member, and aspiring Politician, Bez alongside two professors from the University of Manchester, on opposing sides of the debate as well as a leading Blackpool business woman. 

For the motion

Ernie Rutter, Professor of Structural Geology at the University of Manchester

Professor Rutter has said: ‘The potential importance of the development of shale gas resources to the UK economy and for a politically secure energy resource have been well rehearsed for those who have listened. The facts of the American experience of falling energy prices coupled with security of supply, job creation and economic stimulation demonstrate this potential.

Claire Smith, president, Stay Blackpool

Claire Smith has said: “Shale gas could be the catalyst to get things moving. Horner Blackpool should be the engine driver for the Fylde Coast. We must not dither on this one. It’s a chance to make a step change.”

Against the motion

Bez, Happy Mondays and anti-fracking protestor

Bez told the Guardian: “I went along to the fracking protest at Barton Moss to lend my support because of the concerns I have about environmental issues. If we allow fracking to happen in Salford and Manchester, any idea of a permaculture society will end with it. I am standing as an MP to draw attention to the debate because I believe fracking is unsafe technology and the damage it could do to the environment is irreversible.”

Professor Kevin Anderson, Deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at The University of Manchester
Professor Anderson has argued: “Shale gas is indisputably a high-carbon energy source. It is identical to natural gas – consequently when combusted it emits large quantities of carbon dioxide.
The science of global warming, the maths of our emissions and our pledge to limit temperature increases to below a 2°C rise lead to the conclusion that shale gas must remain in the ground if we are to avoid ‘dangerous climate change’.”

To place your vote, sign up to the event here. Join the conversation with @mcrscifest and @discussMCR #msf14 

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

3D: Printing the Future

Manchester Science Festival Director and Bez with his 3D printed bust
In preparing for the upcoming exhibition 3D: Printing the Future for the Manchester Science Festival 2014, we have been accepting donations of 3D printed items from our partners and supporters.

We also wanted to print something iconic to Manchester.  Since we already had Happy Mondays dancer Bez signed up for our debate on the future of fracking, it was an opportunity too good to miss.  Watch this short video of what we got up to when we visited Hobs Reprographics in Manchester, who are also sponsoring the exhibition, with our special guest.

Monday, 13 October 2014

#MegaMenger - builders wanted

Testing the cards in a practice build
Guest post by Katie Steckles

Stand-up Mathematician Matt Parker, along with a team of volunteers are looking to build the world’s largest fractal, using over a million folded business cards.

A Menger sponge is a fractal based on a cube, which is made of smaller cubes, which themselves are made of smaller cubes, and so on - giving it the fractal property which makes it interesting to mathematicians - plus, it looks very cool. It’s possible to build a Menger sponge using pieces of rectangular card, using a simple folding technique and a little patience.

Matt Parker and a small version of the cube 

Matt, along with a collection of other mathematicians organising events around the world, is building a MegaMenger - a giant distributed fractal, composed of 20 smaller versions of itself. The Manchester build is one of over 20 all taking place during the same week, and if all of them are completed in time we’ll have built the biggest Menger sponge ever made. There’ll be live video feeds from all the other locations, so you can watch as everything comes together.

We’ll be building part of the whole MegaMenger fractal as part of Manchester Science Festival on 25th and 26th October, and we’re looking for keen volunteers to help us build it. If you’re free on either or both days and want to be part of the building team, email info@megamenger.com and we’ll send you details of how you can get involved.  We'll also provide you with training you will need.  

"It turns out that building a Menger sponge is brilliant fun and very addictive" 
Marieke Navin, Manchester Science Festival Director

@MegaMenger #MegaMenger 
@mcrscifest #msf14