Fire and Light Yule Festival – with added science

re-enactor dressed as mediaeval monk, wearing anaglypd 3D glasses
Over the weekend, Kathleen and I, along with Stacey from the Institute of Neuroscience, Gordon Love from Durham University and colleagues from Northumbria University, helped deliver some science activities for the “Fire and Light Yule Festival at North Shields’ Old Low Light. This isn’t as I first assumed a lighthouse, but is a leading light – pilots would guide vessels safely into North Shields harbour by steering so as to keep the lamps on the High Light and the Low Light vertically aligned with one another. This kept them on a course which would avoid them grounding either on mudflats, or on the treacherous Black Midden rocks. So it’s a great example of an industrial application for light technology, and tied in well with the presentation by Prof Fary Ghassemlooy from Northumbria University on cutting-edge “li-fi” communication.

Stacey, Kathleen and I talked about how we see and perceive the world through light, with the help of some visual illusions and our ASTEROID 3D vision test. It was a great event and I’d like to do it again next year.

Shotton Hall Academy – Where can my maths take me?

Last week I was asked to go into a Peterlee academy (Shotton Hall), and they asked me to give a talk about maths in the workplace. Obviously the field that we study in uses a LOT of maths that most other fields don’t so the school were keen for me to come along and impart some of my knowledge. During the day I spoke to about 100 students, giving a half hour talk and answering any questions they had. I covered some basics of maths in science, such as statistics that are needed, and how any scientific job (and in fact, pretty much any job) massively benefits from having a good mathematical grounding.

I then went into a bit more detail about my own specific research, showing the kids some of the David Attenborough 3D footage from micro monsters (the teacher was pretty scared of the 3D tarantula!) and talked the students through the different angles and geometries involved in creating 3D footage. The teachers said that the kids were all engaged and even talking about Maths in the break, so I must have done something right! I enjoyed myself as well, not very often I get to talk for half an hour about my work without interruptions!

Paul explaining 3D maths to children at SHS

Paul explaining 3D maths to children at SHS

The children paying attention as I go through the details of 3D angles

SHS thanking paul for his talk

SHS thanking paul for his talk

I even got tweeted my thanks!

British Science Festival

This has been an exceptionally good and fun week doing the British Science Festival. Lisa had set up a workshop all on camouflage and mimicry and during all the lab helped out (although kudos to Lisa who managed to do every session with a big smile on her face!). There were lots of different activities to do during the workshop including a load of real life creepy crawlies that were all experts at camouflage. My task was to take the children through some posters and do some questions on a quiz sheet. The first question was to do with mimicry. I explained that a hoverfly pretends to be a wasp so that it doesn’t get eaten by birds and we had three example hoverflies from different species trying to mimic a wasp. The children had to rank them in order of ‘most waspishness’ and everybody agreed one was rubbish, one was good, and one was OK. They found it very interesting that birds actually saw our OK mimic as a good mimic and our good mimic as an OK one, and some even ventured a guess that it meant birds see things differently from ours.

Next up on the quiz was aposematism. For those that don’t know, aposematism is the act of being very bright and colourful to warn predators away from eating them, we had examples such as a bee (black and yellow, ‘I’ve got a stinger leave me alone’), a poison arrow frog (Black and yellow patterns ‘don’t eat me I’m poisonous’) and the bombardier beetle (red and black ‘don’t eat me or I’ll spray you with a horrible stink, the kids particularly loved this one!). As a group we then discussed other aposmatic creatures. I had some very interesting answers, of which most were brightly coloured but more to stay camouflaged (tiger, zebra and clown fish). I had some that were mimics or dangerous in their own way (milk snake and sea anemone) and some really good answers (ladybird, skunk, wasp, ringed octopus).

The final two questions involved matching the creature to the type of camouflage it was using, and then guessing which out of 14 butterflies were poisonous and tasty. After the quiz was finished the kids rotated and did something else in the room (which you will probably hear about in other blog posts) and I started again with the next group.

The entire workshop was a great success and I really think some kids took some real knowledge and interest away from the day, and I heard more than one say it had been the best one they had seen yet. Very pleased I volunteered to help out with the event!

Camouflage and Mimicry Workshop

Camouflage and Mimicry Workshop

Our lab has taken part in organizing the Camouflage and Mimicry workshop at the British Science Festival 2013 in Newcastle. Lab members Lisa, Paul, Sid and I (although to a much lesser extent) have participated in setting up a number of activities to introduce visiting young students to some of the fascinating visual trickery that living organisms employ to survive.

The workshop activities included a range of captivating presentations, engaging posters, live insect displays, visual illusions and even an actual scientific experiment. Our lovely visitors showed great interest and demonstrated their breadth of knowledge by giving surprising good answers to some of the presenters’ questions.

Below are some photos from the event.

(Above) Paul and Sid showing students that “things are not always what they seem to be”. On both sides of the natural competition between prey and predators; butterflies pose as poisonous species to deter predators and predators use 3D vision to detect an otherwise invisible prey.

(Above) Corry Gellatly giving students a taste of real science by asking them to “predate” (pick) non-poisonous spiders. Students begin by picking random spiders but later realize that some visual clues can help them in their task. Corry reveals the secret at the end of the experiment and of course … hands the top scoring student a “predator of the day” prize!

The live insect display gathered a lot of attention; student were fascinated by stick insects, praying mantids, assassin bugs and hissing cockroachs!

We’re all looking forward to future public engagement events. We hope the workshop has introduced our work and some of the questions we’re attempting to answer to the highly inquisitive minds of the future!

British science festival, modelling and good time management

It is the British Science Festival (known from here as BSF) next week in Newcastle so the institute is very bustly over the last few days. Lisa on our team has done a tremendous job of organising not 1, not 2, but three timetables and stands for the BSF for our lab and affiliates to run. I’m heading up the poster and worksheet team, and hence working on it every day next week when it is on (mon – thurs). So if anybody does want to come and see the brilliance that is pure science and learn something new, come on down! I’ll be the guy with a big smile getting far too into the role.

In amongst that this week I have started the task of juggling my PhD. I say and really mean juggle, as even though I am only one month into a 36 month process I currently have two papers on the go, a mathematical modelling code to simplify, a student (Pramod) to keep an eye on for a long term piece, an online survey to collect data, a journal club to attend and various other equally important but not massively time consuming things to consider. Anybody who wants to get into science needs to have the focus and attention to concentrate on one problem for weeks on end, but also the ability to chop and change quickly between jobs and problems. How my supervisor Jenny copes is beyond me, as she (being the PI) is juggling the jugglers! that’s like juggling squared!

The modelling is taking up a lot of my time. The oblique angle study that I did for my MRES needs some statistical analysis before we can submit it to Journal of Vision, and that involves a lot of complex mathematical conversations with Jenny, something I properly enjoy! It does also require some serious matlab and more than a little bit of concentration. We have two normal (or Gaussian curves) centred around perpendicular viewing, and also on the angle for which the person is actually sat at, and we weigh the two curves accordingly, then optimise to fit the data. This is both very finicky (exact character matching and just missing a colon or a bracket brings everything falling apart) and time consuming. However it has been fun and the end is in sight. We have two options to pursue: an addition of the weighted curves or a multiplication. Looking at the fitted models in the graphs to me it appears that the addition route will give us a better fit. We then test this using bootstrap resampling (take all the data we collected, put it all together and mix it up, pick some data and random and go again) to determine how well the fit really is quantitatively.

Next week is all BSF, and hopefully a little bit of advancement on a paper on illusions I have written for the Leicester conference.

Kids Kabin in Walker

The time certainly does fly when you’re busy! Since my last blog post I have worked hard on the stimuli to get them to work as we hope they would, and have sorted out an occluder (something to block the edges of the screen from the viewer, so they can’t gauge the orientation of the screen). And I am now in the process of recruiting volunteers and running the experiment.

On Monday I helped out at an ION outreach programme at the Kids Kabin in Walker, an after-school club. School classes have been visiting the centre during school hours to learn different things not seen in a classroom such as pottery, cooking, and including a session on the brain ran by ION. In this session the children (varying age) are taught about how the brain works and how the different parts of the brain handle different tasks. They are engaged in activities they wouldn’t see normally such as the Stroop task (reading out the colour of the words font, rather than the name of the colour, for instance BLUE RED YELLOW would be RED GREEN BLUE and also wearing some custom made glasses which warp the view the of the world the child sees, which are worn and a simple task, like throwing a ball into a basket, is attempted. The emphasis of the classes is to teach the various regions of the cortex and how they work together to perform even simple tasks. The day was good fun for the kids and for the grown ups! Looking forward to going next week!

Michael at Centre for Life

In February, physiology undergraduate Michael Widdall ran a “Meet the Scientist” event at Newcastle’s Centre for Life, in which members of the public carried out a stereo psychophysics experiment.

Mantids meet the public at Moorbank Botanical Gardens

MRes/PhD student Lisa Hindmarsh ran a public engagement activity at the Open Day at Moorbank Gardens. Adults and children alike loved seeing the mantids, and using the microscopes to look at oothecae and other biological specimens.