Mars Diffracts! X-ray Crystallography and Space Exploration

An epic journey into the role of X-ray diffraction in space!

Astrobiologist and intrepid science communicator Lewis Dartnell reveals the crucial role that x-ray crystallography is playing in understanding the formation and history of our planetary neighbour, Mars.

Explaining the techniques used by the Curiosity Rover to analyse the Martian surface, Lewis reveals what the discovery of clay might mean for the possibility of life on the Red Planet.

Joined by space scientists responsible for designing and operating instruments over 60 million kilometres away, Lewis delves into the mysteries of interplanetary exploration including: How do you design reliable instruments for use on other planets? Should we send humans to Mars? And, what does the next mission to the Red Planet look like?

Featuring instrument scientist Graeme Hansford (University of Leicester) and John Bridges, a participating scientist with the NASA Mars Science Laboratory working on the current Curiosity mission.

This film was supported by the Science and Technologies Facilities Council (STFC).

Find out more about filmmaker Thom Hoffman:

via The Royal Institution.

Born to Engineer - Biomedical bubbles with Eleanor Stride

"If I were to say that the complexity of what we do is the same as the complexity of designing a car, I wouldn’t be exaggerating."

Since 2007 biomedical engineer Eleanor Stride has been designing a revolutionary new method of delivering drugs by injecting tiny microbubbles into the bloodstream.

Traditional drug delivery through pills or injection send the active agent through the bloodstream meaning that a high percentage of cells in the body are exposed to the drug. In contrast, the targetted delivery mechanism with bubbles aims to release the drugs only when they reach the part of the body where they are needed.

Some of the bubbles are magnetic and the research team is using groundbreaking techniques developed by the Davy Faraday Research Laboratory at the Royal Institution to control the movement and activation of the bubbles within the body.

This drug delivery method has the potential to avoid the widespread destruction of healthy cells that is presently unavoidable with chemotherapy, which would revolutionise the future treatment of cancer sufferers.

The film was produced by Duckrabbit for the ERA Foundation as part of a pilot scheme to demonstrate how engineering is changing lives and how the world works. Ultimately, the project aims to attract young people towards engineering education and careers.

via The Royal Institution.

Understanding Crystallography №2 From Crystals to Diamond

How do X-rays help us uncover the molecular basis of life?

In the second part of this mini-series, Professor Stephen Curry takes us on a journey into the Diamond Light Source, one of the UK’s most expensive and sophisticated scientific facilities.

Generating light brighter than the sun, and hosting a particle accelerator, Diamond is often used to determine the structure of complex molecules. By placing crystalline samples of proteins in the powerful beams of X-rays, scientists can use the data obatined from the generated diffraction patterns to model accurate 3D structures of the protein molecules.

Professor Curry explores the inner workings of the Diamond Light Source to reveal how such facilities are aiding the field of structural biology and continuing the work of the early crystallography pioneers 100 years on.

via The Royal Institution.

Understanding Crystallography - Part 1: From Proteins to Crystals

How can you determine the structure of a complex molecule from a single crystal?

Professor Elspeth Garman take us on a journey into the world of crystallography - from protein production and purification to growing the right type of crystals.

In her laboratory at the University of Oxford Elspeth introduces us to some of the tricks of the trade, key techinques and the machines that help her team grow crystals ready for X-ray analysis at specialist facilities like Diamond Light Source.

This film was supported by the Science and Technologies Facilities Council (STFC).

Watch more science videos on the Ri Channel

via The Royal Institution.

Drugs, science and society; past, present and future

Narcotics have been used by humans since the time of the ancient Egyptians, and even today around 300 million people across the world take drugs each year. But what is a drug? And who is it that should decide what a drug is?

In this Ri event chaired by Kate Kelland, EMEA Health and Science Correspondent for Reuters, Sharon Ruston and David Nutt explore the past, present and future of our societal and political attitudes towards drugs. From supposedly “medical” experimentations in the 18th and 19th centuries, to modern-day government drugs policy and the rise of new ‘legal highs’.

In the 1800s, eminent Ri scientist Humphry Davy carried out numerous experiments on the effects of breathing nitrous oxide, testing it on both himself and others. These experiences lead to his claim that this drug could “destroy our pains and increase our pleasures”. Comparing Davy’s trials with those of Thomas De Quincey with opium, Sharon Ruston, Professor of Romanticism at Lancaster University, explores what were clearly some rather blurred boundaries between medical and recreational drug use at this time. Both nitrous oxide and opium have become invaluable medicines, the first as an anaesthetic, the second as morphine — one of our most powerful forms of pain relief. But it seems during these early experimentations that these drugs’ were heralded as much for their pleasurable uses as for the control of pain, enabling humans to access a new world of “sublime perception”.

Such research was aided by the fact that, in Davy’s day, science had little, if any, interference from politics. Times have certainly changed, and the use and classification of drugs has become heavily entrenched in politics. In the second half of the talk psychiatrist and neuropsychopharmacologist Prof David Nutt, explores this complex relationship, considering the challenges posed by politics, media and the alcohol industry in the future of drugs policy. Nutt raises some controversial questions, including whether alcohol is more dangerous than other drugs, and gives his thoughts on what drugs, and society’s view of them, will look like in the future.

Drugs, science and society - Event Q&A

Psychiatrist and neuropsychopharmacologist Prof David Nutt, and Sharon Ruston, Professor of Romanticism at Lancaster University, explore the past, present and future of our societal and political attitudes towards drugs. From supposedly “medical” experimentations in the 18th and 19th centuries, to modern-day government drugs policy and the rise of new ‘legal highs’. Chaired by Kate Kelland, EMEA Health and Science Correspondent for Reuters.

Duration: 1:25:15

via The Royal Institution.

The Neuroscience of Memory - Eleanor Maguire

Our memories are our lives, and a fundamental basis of our culture. Collective memoirs of the past both bind society together and shape our potential future. With our brains we can travel through time and space, calling to mind places of significance, evoking images and emotions of past experiences. It’s no wonder, then, that we so desperately fear the prospect of memory loss.

Many regions of the brain are involved in memory, but one of the most critical components is the hippocampus, which plays a crucial role in the formation of long-term memories. Damage to the hippocampus can therefore result in significant memory loss.

In this Friday Evening Discourse, Eleanor Maguire draws on evidence from virtual reality, brain imaging and studies of amnesia to show that the consequences of hippocampal damage are even more far-reaching than suspected, robbing us of our past, our imagination and altering our perception of the world.

Maguire also explains how, despite our beliefs, our memories are not actually as accurate as you might think. In fact, they’re not really even about the past.

This event is part of our all-women line up for Friday Evening Discourses in 2014 as part of our year long celebration of women in science. Find out more here

Try it yourself - there are two demos in this talk that you can try at home, both of which relate to a fascinating phenomena of how we perceive and recollect visual scenes.

1. Image distance demo:
In this demo viewers are given a 3 second countdown before seeing a quick sequence of two pictures of the same object, divided briefly by a visual mask. The challenge is to identify whether the second picture is the same view as the first, or whether it’s moved closer or further away. Try it yourself at 6:56

2. Drawing from memory demo:
You have 15 seconds to look at a picture, which you’ll then be asked to draw, as accurately as possible, from memory. See how you get on at 35:20.

Thumbnail image credit: Gontzal García del Caño on Flickr

Duration: 01:07:13

via The Royal Institution.

The Greek Legacy - An animated adventure!

Often called the “birthplace of civilisation”, Ancient Greece heralded numerous advances in philosophy, science, sport and also mathematics. Over six centuries from 600 BC a group of revolutionary thinkers – from Thales, Pythagoras, Democritus and Aristotle to Euclid, Archimedes and Hypatia of Alexandria – formalised the rules and language of modern mathematics.

This animated adventure brings to life some of these key figures to demonstrate the crucial role played by the Ancient Greeks in the story of maths.

For Greek thinkers, maths wasn’t simply a means of calculating amounts but a way of testing reality and understanding the true nature of the world around them. Indeed, Pythagoras is believed to have coined both the words “philosophy” (“love of wisdom”) and “mathematics” (“that which is learned”). In turn, Euclid came to be known as the “father of geometry”.

At the heart of this new understanding, was the concept of “the proof”, developed by Euclid in what is commonly regarded as the most important and successful mathematical textbook of all time – the “Stoicheion” or “Elements”. Built upon the axiomatic method, mathematical proofs were a way of testing assumptions by building up a mathematical argument using self-evident or assumed statements (or, “axioms”).

It is this methodology that formed the foundational language and logic of modern mathematics throughout the world. Indeed, Euclid’s Elements was widely used as the seminal maths textbook right up until the start of the twentieth century.

Many thanks to James Grime for his expert help on the script and recording the voice-over. Follow him @jamesgrime or find out more at

Thanks also to the wonderful 12foot6 and Phoebe Halstead for bringing our ideas to life in animated form:

This video was created as part of the Greek Legacy Masterclass project, generously supported by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation:

via The Royal Institution.

Jared Diamond - What can we learn from traditional societies?

Pulitzer Prize-winner Jared Diamond takes you on an epic journey into our rapidly receding past, revealing how tribal societies offer an extraordinary window into how our ancestors lived for millions of years — until virtually yesterday, in evolutionary terms — and how they can provide unique, often overlooked insights into human nature.

This Ri event, titled “The world until yesterday’, took place on 1 October 2013.

Duration: 01:30:51

via The Royal Institution.

Roger Penrose - Forbidden crystal symmetry in mathematics and architecture

Sir Roger Penrose provides a unique insight into the “forbidden symmetry” of his famous penrose tiles and the use of non-repeating patterns in deisgn and architecture.

It is a rigorous mathematical theorem that the only crystallographic symmetries are 2-fold, 3-fold, 4-fold, and 6-fold symmetries.

Yet, since the 1970s 5-fold, 8-fold, 10-fold and 12-fold “almost” symmetric patterns have been exhibited, showing that such crystallographically “forbidden symmetries” are mathematically possible and deviate from exact symmetry by an arbitrarily small amount. Such patterns are often beautiful to behold and designs based on these arrangements have now been used in many buildings throughout the world.

In this Ri event Sir Roger Penrose reveals the mathematical underpinnings and origins of these “forbidden symmetries” and other related patterns. His talk is illustrated with numerous examples of their use in architectural design including a novel version of “Penrose tiling” that appears in the approach to the main entrance of the new Mathematics Institute in Oxford, officially opened in late 2013 (

The tiling is constructed from several thousand diamond-shaped granite tiles of just two different shapes, decorated simply with circular arcs of stainless steel. The matching of the tiles forces them into an overall pattern which never repeats itself and exhibits remarkable aspects of 5-fold and 10-fold symmetry.

Similar features have been found also in the atomic structures of quasi-crystalline materials. The initial discovery of such material earned Dan Shectman the 2011 Nobel Prize for chemistry, his work having launched a completely novel area of crystallography.

The filming and production of this event was supported by the Science and Technology Facilities Council:

Roger Penrose: Forbidden crystal symmetry - Event Q&A

The event question and answer session from an Ri event with Sir Roger Penrose in October 2013.

Duration: 122:07

via The Royal Institution.

Seeing the back of your eye using Hubble Telescope technology!

Using technology developed for use on the Hubble Telescope, Pete Coffey shows Alison Woollard how he can see the macular region at the back of the eye, on the retina. This technique has been used in the diagnosis and treatment of an increasingly common disorder - Age Related Macular Degeneration. In this disease patients’ vision fades, especially in the central part of their vision.

Clip taken from the 2013 CHRISTMAS LECTURES: Life Fantastic Lecture 3 - Could I live forever?

via The Royal Institution.

Ri L’Oréal Young Scientist Centre Unconference 2013 - Highlights

In the third annual Ri L’Oréal Young Scientist Centre Unconference, hundreds of student from across the UK came together to discuss future technologies and their ethical implications.

Our four discussion topics and keynote speakers for the 2013 Unconference were:

Energy and the environment; Professor Sir David King — Foreign Secretary’s Special Representative for Climate Change

Personal data acquisition and security; Dr Susan Wallace - Lecturer of Population & Public Health Sciences at the University of Leicester

Bioscience; Dr Adam Rutherford - Author, broadcaster and science communicator

Environment and food security; Professor Tim Wheeler - Director of Research and

Deputy Chief Scientific Adviser for the Department for International Development, and Professor of Crop Science, University of Reading

After listening to the ideas presented in these keynote speeches, students participated in collaborative group sessions. The students then presented their thoughts and opinions back to the larger unconference, including a panel of key influencers representing science, education, industry, government and the media.

This year the students emphasised the need for greater co-operation between countries to facilitate and fund effective research into new methods of creating energy; they called for the government to support the food and manufacturing industry to make biodegradable packaging more mainstream and cost-effective; and recommended that genome mapping should become ‘opt-out’ by parents at birth due to the positive impact this data could have on our future understanding and treatment of genetic disorders.

Thank you to L’Oréal UK & Ireland for supporting this event.

via The Royal Institution.

Incredible Moiré Patterns!

Sir Roger Penrose demonstrates the extraordinary moiré patterns produced by overlaying and rotating two identical, repeating patterns. As the two patterns overlapped and rotated they interfere with each other to produce tertiary patterns.

via The Royal Institution.

Chromosome (24) mtDNA - Lynn Margulis and the mitochondrial DNA

When we’re born we usually inherit our father’s surname but we also inherit a rather unique type of DNA from our mothers — mitochondrial DNA. Aoife McLysaght explains how this special genetic link can be traced back to the origins of humans, and tells the story of the remarkable female scientist who figured out where our mitochondria came from in the first place.

via The Royal Institution.

Exploding High-speed Christmas Bauble

Andy Marmery finds out what happens when he heats up a glass bauble filled with a tiny amount of water. The results are, predictably, explosive. However, shooting the experiment at 18,000 and then 34,000 frames per second with a Phantom v1610 camera reveals the shattering forces at work.

via The Royal Institution.

Chromosome X&Y (23) - Colour Blindness

How do we distinguish light from dark and one colour from another?

The answer lies in the tiny light-sensitive cells of our retinas — the rods and cones. We have three different types of cones which respond to blue, green and red light, and faults with any of these cone cells can lead to different kinds of colour blindness.

The gene responsible for colour blindness is found on the X chromosome which, as Dr Simon Watt explains, is the reason that so many more men are colour blind than women.

With thanks to BBSRC:

via The Royal Institution.